hell

I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I know, I know, it was Twitter: Was New York Times pro right that Jews don't believe in heaven?

I did not watch the State of the Union show last night, in keeping with my long-standing policy that I strive to prevent the face of Donald Trump from appearing on my television screen. I took the same approach to Hillary Clinton throughout the 2016 race.

In other words, I wait for the transcript of the speech and I read the key parts. This approach is much easier on my aging stomach lining. In other words, I’m interested in what was said — not the Trump dramatics and the talking-heads circus that followed.

This time around, I was interested in what Trump had to say about the current firestorms in Virginia and New York about what U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse has called “fourth-trimester abortion.”

You’ll be shocked, shocked, to learn that fact-checkers at The New York Times were not impressed with Trump’s comments in this area. Click here to see that, and then click here for a conservative academic’s skeptical fact-check of the Times fact-check.

I also checked Twitter a bit, during the speech, and then read all the way through my feed this morning looking for signs of post-SOTU intelligent life.

Thus, I ran into the amazing tweet by New York Times White House correspondent Annie Karmi stating:

Trump Just Ad-Libbed "They Came Down From Heaven" When Quoting A Holocaust Survivor Watching American Soldiers Liberate Dachau. Jews Don't Believe In Heaven.

Wow. I had no idea that there was a Jewish catechism that definitively stated loud dogma on issues of this kind.

I was under the impression — based on graduate school readings on trends in post-Holocaust Jewish life and culture — that trying to say that “Jews believe” this, that or the other is rather difficult. In this case, are we talking about Orthodox Jews, modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews, Buddhist Jews, “cultural” Jews, Jewish agnostics, secular Jews or what?

Saying “Jews don’t believe in heaven” is sort of like saying “Democrats don’t believe in God.” I mean, there are Democrats who believe in God, and there’s evidence of that, and there’s some evidence that lots of Democrats don’t believe in God. How would anyone try to make a definitive statement about something like that?

Ditto for Jews and “heaven.”

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Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Yes, President George H.W. Bush was an Episcopalian (and that is still a noun)

Back when I was breaking into journalism, soon after the cooling of the earth’s crust, I quickly learned that religion-beat specialists know lots of inside jokes.

Take this classic one, from the “light bulb” genre: How many Episcopalians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: One. Along with 10 others to start a newsletter about the utter irreplaceability of the original, historic bulb.

Yes, that’s a really old joke. Today, “newsletter” would be “Facebook page,” or something like that.

In this GetReligion post, the key thing is to note, in this joke, that “Episcopalian” is a noun.

Want to see the adjective form?

While working at the old Charlotte News (RIP), I got some nasty telephone calls after writing a column with this lede: “When covering an Episcopal convention, never stay in the hotel room next to the ice machine.”

As the late Associated Press religion reporter George Cornell — an Episcopalian’s Episcopalian, if there ever was one — once offered, in my presence, a quip that went something like this: You can tell that a journalist is a religion-beat reporter when they know that “Episcopalian” is a noun and “Episcopal” is an adjective.

I bring this up because lots of journalists — few of them religion-beat specialists — will be covering the funeral rites for President George H.W. Bush. Since he was a faithful Episcopalian, of a rather traditional bent, all of these rites will occur in Episcopal settings, with Episcopal clergy involved.

It’s safe to say that mistakes will be made. Consider, for example, the following passage in a lovely Houston Chronicle sidebar about the current emotions in the parish that Barbara and George Bush attended in Houston. The headline: “At Bush’s church, a moment of pause for ‘a remarkable life’.” The story opens with images from the 8 a.m. Mass at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, a service that tends to attract an older, quieter crowd:

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What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

A late September headline at the Esquire magazine website proclaimed “There Is No God on TV, Only The Good Place.”

Indeed, the clever sitcom of that title, which launched season No. 3 last week, plays around with good and evil, heaven and hell, and even portrays supernatural demons. But God is missing.

This NBC fantasy is just the thing to lure the eyeballs of America’s growing legion of young, religiously unmoored “nones,” in a carefully multicultural fashion that also ignores religious beliefs and practices. Instead, the proceedings are all about a hazy moral philosophy about what makes a good person.

CBS makes a different audience bid with “God Friended Me,” which premiered Sunday. The drama’s lead character Miles (played by Brandon Micheal Hall) is a preacher’s kid turned outspoken atheist. Is the “God” who becomes his Facebook “friend” the actual cosmic God or some human or otherworldly trickster? To find out, Miles enlists his devout bartender sister, a hacker pal, and a journalist, and experiences coincidences that just might be miracles.

Judging from one episode, there may not be much here for religion writers to ponder, and it's hard to guess whether “Friended” can even survive. (Ratings prospects are dimmed by CBS’s inability to set predictable Sunday start times following sports events.) This seems inspiration-drenched programming in the varied tradition of “Highway to Heaven,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Promised Land,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” or last season’s short-lived “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”

“The Good Place,” by contrast, has somehow managed to establish a niche and win critics’ acclaim by probing Big Questions with a droll touch. Here salvation is earned strictly by performing good deeds instead of faith. That conflicts with an historic 1999 Catholic-Lutheran accord that insists Christianity believes that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God” who equips and calls us to “good works.”

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CNN offers another big-media PR feature backing Rob Bell in his old wars with evangelicalism

CNN offers another big-media PR feature backing Rob Bell in his old wars with evangelicalism

About six years ago, the Rev. Rob Bell was -- in terms of mainstream news -- hotter than hell.

In other words, lots of reporters thought he was totally cool because he was turning the world of megachurch celebrity culture inside out with his headline-friendly attacks on centuries of Christian doctrine about heaven, hell and salvation (plus some other predictable topics linked to faith, culture and politics).

It's all part of a news-media equation that is familiar to all public-relations professionals who promote religious books to the mainstream. If an evangelical writer wants great press, all he or she has to do is attack the core beliefs of evangelicalism. The same works for Catholics, Anglicans (Newark Bishop Jack Spong wrote the book on this), Mormons and pretty much everyone else.

The bottom line: Rebellion against conservative orthodoxy is almost always news. So Bell's "Love Wins" book was a big deal, for many.

So Bell took his post-congregation revival tour to Atlanta the other day and CNN.com was all over it, producing a long, long, print feature with this headline: "Outlaw pastor Rob Bell shakes up the Bible Belt."

Let me stress that an update on Bell is a valid subject for a feature story, even if the former megachurch pastor is no longer making headlines. Also, there have been lots of interesting responses to Bell's redefinition of heaven and hell, some of them book length (see "God Wins"), which means that it would ultra-easy for CNN editors/reporters to find articulate responses -- from a variety of theological perspectives -- to what Bell is still saying.

No, honest. Don't laugh. It would have been so easy for CNN to produce an interesting, complex, accurate, balanced news feature on this Bell event.

Want to guess what happened?

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Jesus and the 'spirits in prison' -- Is this toughest passage in the New Testament?

Jesus and the 'spirits in prison' -- Is this toughest passage in the New Testament?

JOEL’S QUESTION:

[Explanation:] The pastor of a New Jersey Protestant congregation sent in several “questions that have come up here.” One of them is how to understand the passage in the New Testament letter of 1st Peter about Jesus Christ preaching to “the spirits in prison.”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The Bible’s major teachings are clear enough. But Joel and his parishioners shouldn’t be embarrassed if they’re confused about this particular New Testament head-scratcher. Even Martin Luther (who so energized Bible study 500 years ago by sparking the Protestant Reformation) said it’s “certainly a more obscure passage than any other in the New Testament. I still do now know for sure what the apostle means.” Robert Mounce, president of Whitworth University, agreed that this section is “widely recognized as perhaps the most difficult to understand in the New Testament.”

Here’s the text at issue: “Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah . .  .” (1 Peter 3:18-20a, RSV translation).

The following analysis relies especially on commentaries by Mounce, an American, the German exegete Leonhard Goppelt, and England’s J.N.D. Kelly. Scholars candidly admit that each explanation has problems. Among them:

(1) Between his death by crucifixion and bodily resurrection, Christ visited the realm of the dead and preached to Noah’s wicked contemporaries. That was the view of early church “Fathers,” notably Clement of Alexandria.

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This is not a joke: Ever-edgy Unitarian Universalists just elected their first woman president

This is not a joke: Ever-edgy Unitarian Universalists just elected their first woman president

Anyone who knows me knows that I love jokes about religion. We are not talking about cruel or nasty humor. I'm talking about the kinds of jokes that offer insights into what makes certain religious groups tick, the characteristics that define them as who they are.

Like what? Catholic jokes? Too many to mention. Jewish humor? That's a truckload of books, including the vast world of Jewish mother humor.

You could do an entire book on jokes about religious believers at the gates of hell. Like this one, which I heard from an Episcopalian who briefly considered doing a book on Episcopal Church humor.

So three women arrive at the gates of hell -- a Southern Baptist, a Catholic and an Episcopalian. Satan asks each: What did you do to get sent here? The Baptist says: "I got drunk." Satan sends her into hell. The Catholic says: "I had an affair with my priests." In she goes. The Episcopalian says: "I ate all my dinner with my salad fork." Satan rings her up.

Light bulb jokes? That's another book. Let's start with my own flock. How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Light bulb? What is this LIGHT BULB? Alternative joke: Change? What is this CHANGE?

Then there is the unique niche for Unitarian Universalist humor. You know, like: What do you get when you cross a Unitarian with a Mormon? Answer: Someone who goes door to door for no particular reason. Leadership magazine once ran a cartoon (pre-WWW era, alas) with the caption, "Unitarian charismatics." It showed people with their hands in the air shouting, "Now I rrreeeeeeeallly don't know!" Garrison Keillor once quipped that early Unitarian missionaries tried to spread their faith among Native Americans by using liturgical dance.

So why, you ask, am I bringing this up?

Religion News Service ran a short story the other day that, at first glance, left your GetReligionistas shaking our heads in wonder. My first reaction was laughter, because it seemed so ironic that it might have been a joke. I couldn't believe that it was true.

The headline: "Unitarian Universalists elect first woman president."

Say what?!? In 2017? Was this satire?

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Dry bones transformed and other visions: What do Jews believe about life after death?

Dry bones transformed and other visions: What do Jews believe about life after death?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

The Hebrew Bible makes no mention of an afterlife. When did this belief come into being among the Israelites, and why?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This is an appropriate follow-up to our December 1 answer to Paula concerning “what does Christianity say happens to believers after death?”

True, the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (or for Christians the Old Testament) has no explicit and detailed concept of the afterlife such as we have in the New Testament. This whole topic has been considerably more central and developed in Christianity than in Judaism. However, Jewish authors offer a more complex scenario than that Jewish Scripture “makes no mention of an afterlife.” They observe that while most biblical references are vague, we see an evolution in belief. Some particulars:

Frequent references in Genesis, followed by the Psalms and the prophets, say that the dead abide in a shadowy state called sheol. Such passages as Ecclesiastes 9:5, Job 14:21, and Psalm 88:11-12 indicate that this involves no conscious existence.

On the other hand, the Bible depicts forms of life beyond death in Genesis 5:24 (Enoch taken directly to God), 2 Kings 2:11 (the same with Elijah), 1 Samuel 2:6 (God “brings down to sheol and raises up”), Psalm 49:15 (“God will ransom my soul from the power of sheol, for he will receive me”), and Saul’s notable conversation with the deceased Samuel in 1 Samuel 28.

Also, sages interpreted the prophet Ezekiel’s “dry bones” vision in chapter 37 as depicting a communal afterlife for Israel, and the Talmud saw Isaiah 60:21 (“they shall possess the land forever”) in terms of bodily resurrection.

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The big question: What does Christianity say happens to believers after death?

The big question: What does Christianity say happens to believers after death?

PAULA’S QUESTION:

When people say their loved one went to heaven, why doesn’t the preacher tell them that no-one goes straight to heaven? If they did, what would be the reason for the resurrection?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Christian doctrine says that after death a believer’s soul enters the presence of God in the blessedness of heaven, and then in the end times will be reunited with a transformed body. Christianity contrasts with Eastern religions’ belief in reincarnation, a long series of rebirths into varied conditions and biological species based upon performance in the prior life.

With typical Presbyterian precision, the Christian teaching is spelled out in the 17th Century Westminster Confession, accompanied by citations of 14 Bible texts:

“The bodies of men after death return to dust, and see corruption, but their souls, (which neither die nor sleep,) having an immortal subsistence, immediately return to God who gave them. The souls of the righteous, being then made perfect in holiness, are received into the highest heavens, where they behold the face of God in light and glory, waiting for the full redemption of their bodies.” Then at “the last day ... all the dead shall be raised up with the self-same bodies, and none other, although with different qualities, which shall be united again to their souls forever.”

The modern-day Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the same: “In death, the separation of the soul from the body, the human body decays and the soul goes to meet God, while awaiting its reunion with its glorified body. God, in his almighty power, will definitively grant incorruptible life to our bodies by reuniting them with our souls, through the power of Jesus’ resurrection” at “the end of the world” when Christ returns.

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To hell with it: No, seriously, there's a movement to eliminate doctrine of eternal torment

To hell with it: No, seriously, there's a movement to eliminate doctrine of eternal torment

What the ... ?

In case you haven't heard, there's a campaign to eliminate hell.

No, it's not a platform of Donald Trump. In fact, I can't outright dismiss the possibility that Trump might be Satan. (I kid. I kid.)

But seriously, National Geographic reports on changing evangelical attitudes toward hell in a recent feature story.

I love the lede.

See is this opening doesn't grab your attention:

Hell isn’t as popular as it used to be.  
Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans who believe in the fiery down under has dropped from 71 percent to 58 percent. Heaven, by contrast, fares much better and, among Christians, remains an almost universally accepted concept.  
Underlying these statistics is a conundrum that continues to tug at the conscience of some Christians, who find it difficult to reconcile the existence of a just, loving God with a doctrine that dooms billions of people to eternal punishment.  
"Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die," wrote the late Clark Pinnock, an influential evangelical theologian.   
While religious philosophers have argued over the true nature of hell since the earliest days of Christianity, the debate has become especially pronounced in recent decades among the millions of Americans who identify themselves as evangelicals. The once taboo topic is being openly discussed as well-regarded scholars publish articles and best-selling books that rely on careful readings of Scripture to challenge traditional views.   

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