The Bible is messy. One of my favorite Christian writers Richard Beck says that trying to create a clean systematic theology out of what we read in the Bible is like “trying to stuff a thunderstorm in a bottle.” You may be able to make a pretty good case from reading just one book of the Bible, or from deliberately picking verses that agree with each other. But as soon as you go read a different book of the Bible, you get a different perspective. Sometimes slightly different. And sometimes really different. That used to drive me nuts. In fact, when I first realized that the Bible wasn’t as clean and orderly as I always thought it was, it sent my faith into a full on death spiral and for more than a year I struggled and wrestled with my beliefs about God and even my belief in God. I’ve talked about that in other sermons so I won’t go into all of it again here. Suffice it to say that, like Jacob at the river in Genesis 32, I wrestled with God and came away with a limp. But now, I love this thunderstormy Bible. And the fact that it can’t be stuffed in a bottle is my favorite thing about the it. The Bible is messy. Human history is messy. My life is messy. And so the messiness of the Bible corresponds with and affirms and honors the messiness of human life, even as it affirms that Jesus is Lord over all this mess.
This morning I want to start by acknowledging this messiness for a few reasons. One is that I just don’t want it to surprise you. The fact that the Bible is messy doesn’t mean it’s untrustworthy. God is supremely trustworthy even, and I would say, especially when we are wrestling with God’s word to us in the Bible. Second, I want to acknowledge this messiness because I want to remind you that I don’t have all the answers. The constitution of the United Church of Christ says that it is the responsibility of each generation to make the faith their own, which means you have to decide what you believe. By all means listen to me, but take responsibility for your own spirituality. Anyone who tells you this stuff is simple is probably trying to sell you something. And finally, I want to acknowledge the messiness of the Bible because this morning we are going to talk about eternal life, and heaven, and hell, and those are messy subjects. The Bible doesn’t give us perfectly clear cut answers on this. Smart people who love Jesus disagree about these things. That’s just the reality of it. And it’s OK.
The wonderful result of this messiness is that our faith never gets boring. There is always something else to learn, something else to explore, something else to study. And when your life situation changes and what you used to believe doesn’t work for you anymore, the Bible still has room for you. In it you will find the new comfort that you need. These holy words have truth for children and challenging invitations for grownups.
So far in this series, we have talked about sin, death, and resurrection. I know that some of what I’ve said has been new for you, which naturally leads us to ask, “But what about the stuff I’ve heard before?” If the Christian answer to death is the resurrection of the body and the restoration of the world, then what about heaven and hell? And what is eternal life?
Let’s review. Sin is a distortion of the wholeness that God intends for the world. It is much larger than our individual actions. It is a force that exists outside of our ability to control it. It is our inevitable state, but not our natural state. We were designed for wholeness but because of sin, the whole creation is broken. Because of sin, we are all subject to the power of death. Not simply to the event of dying, but to the compulsion to do all the things that we do to avoid the terrifying acknowledgment that one day we won’t exist any longer. This power of death is what drives us to get what we can for ourselves. It’s the power behind racism, sexism, homophobia, greed, violence, environmental destruction, and all the other problems in the world.
We don’t need to be ashamed that we are slaves to sin, that we are broken by the power of death, but we also don’t need to tolerate it. Jesus offers us a way out, a path back to wholeness. In his life, he shows us once and for all exactly what God is like and what it would be like to live a human life free from the slavery of sin and the power of death. In his death, he conquers sin. And in his resurrection, Jesus conquers death. By God’s grace, we participate in Jesus’ death through our faith and our baptisms, and so we can live free from the slavery to sin here and now, although we will still commit individual sins. Christ’s resurrection is the downpayment, the promise that everyone will eventually experience the resurrection of the body and the restoration of creation. So eventually, when we are also resurrected, we will also overcome the power of death.
That sounds like a pretty good deal to me. But I realize that I gave that whole summary without ever saying some words that we are very used to hearing. Words like heaven and hell and eternal life. What about those? Because those are the things we really want to ask about, aren’t they? And why is that? 99% of the Bible is about how we live our lives here on earth, about justice and mercy and humility, about how we honor God in our relationships with one another and with God. And yet we are obsessed with that 1% of the Scriptures that talk about the end. I’ll tell you why I think it is. What we are really interested in is judgment and control. It’s all about judgment and control.
It’s not until the very end of the Old Testament that we find anything about what we would call life after death. For thousands of years, the ancient Hebrew people believed that people are human bodies animated by the breath of God. At the end of life, the breath goes back to God and the body goes to the land of the dead. That’s it. Everyone goes to the same place, not a bad place or a good place. Just the land of the dead. Basically, the ancient Hebrews weren’t worried about what happened after death. God told them how to live their lives, and when they didn’t honor their covenant with God, they experienced the consequences in this life. Judgment was about what happened here and now.
But societies and cultures change and get more complicated and by the time we get to the New Testament, there’s a whole range of beliefs about life after death, including the idea that humans can earn an eternal reward or an eternal punishment by how we live. In fact we have writings that confirm that the Pharisees believed in eternal punishment and eternal reward. But guess what? Jesus didn’t believe in that and neither did his disciples.
And now those of you who know your Scriptures are grabbing for your Bibles or your apps to search out all the texts that talk about eternal life and heaven and hell. So here’s where I’m going to invite you to listen to me and make your own decision. This is one of those times when we have to remember how messy the Bible is, and how it got to be the versions we read now. Friends, it’s time to get a little nerdy.
The New Testament was written in Greek, in a dialect of Greek that nobody speaks anymore, and it has been copied and recopied by hand and translated over and over throughout the years. I fully trust what I read in the Bible, but I also know not everything translates cleanly from one language to another. A different translation of a word will provide a different meaning. The Greek word that we translate as “eternal” as in “eternal life” and “eternal punishment” does not only mean “everlasting for all time as we know it.” In fact it wasn’t until 600 years after Jesus that people to start using it that way. Before that time it meant an indefinite period of time, a length of time that is appropriate for the thing it is describing, a length of time that is determined by the one who is setting the length of time.
Do you know the English word “eon” E-O-N? As in, “We’ve been in isolation for an eon”? It’s a noun that means an indefinite period of time, probably really long, but obviously not specifically forever. The Greek word that we translate “eternal” is the adjective that goes with this noun. We actually have an English word for this. It’s the adjective “eonian” as in “relating to an eon.” But NOBODY uses that word. I didn’t even know it existed.
If the Scriptures were translated most literally from Greek to English, the phrase would not be “eternal life” but “eonian life.” Which again, we would never say. But it makes a difference. Remember how I said the Pharisees believed in eternal reward and eternal punishment? When they wrote about it, they used a different Greek word that clearly meant eternal the way we think of it. But when Jesus and his followers talk about eternal life, they don’t use the same word the Pharisees used. They use this word “eonian.” If Jesus and the disciples wanted to talk about infinite punishment or infinite reward in the same way that other people did, they would have used the same phrase, but they didn’t. They specifically said something different.
Why am I telling you this? I am telling you this because I am so entirely sick to death of arguing about a religion based on the idea of rewards and punishments, carrots and sticks. And not just carrots and sticks but an infinite carrot and an infinite stick! You know how it got this way? Theologians who lived hundreds of years after Jesus studied the Scriptures and started saying that eonian actually meant infinite. They started saying what the Pharisees had said. God doesn’t say infinite carrot and infinite stick. We say it. And you know why we say it? Because of judgment and control.
We want to be able to judge other people. Remember our Garden of Eden origin story? The tree we ate from was the tree that gave us the ability to know good and evil. Our original sin is that we want to be able to pass judgment on things and especially on people. This person is bad and this person is good. And there is nothing more delicious to our judgey tastebuds than to use an infinite carrot and infinite stick in our judgment. The people we like — the people who share our beliefs, the people who agree with us about wearing masks or opening the economy — we decide that those are good people, people who will get the infinite carrot. And everyone who does things we disapprove of, anyone who thinks differently than we do, or worse, who still believe the things we used to believe, those are bad people, people who will get the infinite stick. Oh, how delicious to be right about people, to have them neatly divided into our camps, and to be sure that our enemies will get what’s coming to them. Judgment. We love it.
We also love control. Religious leaders especially love control. If I can get you to believe in an infinite carrot and an infinite stick, I can get to you to do just about anything. I can control your behavior by promising you the carrot or threatening you with the stick. And that’s super convenient for me. But here’s the problem for you. That’s a really immature way to live. Basing your behavior on external reward or punishment stunts your emotional and spiritual growth.
Think about it. If Sam and I teach Sammy how to behave by giving him candy every time he does something we like and beating him every time he does something we don’t like, what kind of an adult will he become? How will he know what to do and where will he find the motivation to do it? That’s terrible parenting. And if there’s one can be sure of, it’s that God is a better parent than we are, which to me means that God has a better way of teaching us than infinite carrot and infinite stick.
What God offers us is not the choice of infinite carrot and infinite stick. What God offers us is eonian life, the life of the eons, the life of the ages, a life that endures beyond this age. I’ll tell you what I think this life of the ages is. I think it’s the life of the gospel and it lasts for as long as we trust in God. In John chapter 17 Jesus is praying for his disciples on the night he is arrested and here is what he prays. “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life, or the life of the eons to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life or the life of the eons: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
Eternal life, the life of the eons, is to know God through Christ. The vast majority of New Testament references to eternal life are found in the gospel of John and the letter of First John. When we read those, we find that eternal life, the life of the eons is found in a relationship of trust with Jesus Christ. By aligning ourselves with Jesus, with his life, his death and his resurrection, we find our way into a mode of life that transcends this daily grind. And if we find that life now, if we live in it, we will be living in such a way that prepares us for the restoration of the world and the resurrection of our bodies. Eternal life, the life of the eons, is to live now as we will live in God’s future.
So what about the “eternal punishment”? Well that specific phrase occurs only once in the whole Bible. There are some other similar phrases like eternal judgment and eternal destruction. But all together, phrases like that show up maybe 10 times total in the whole Bible. And if the word “eternal” doesn’t mean “infinite” but instead means “the amount of time required to accomplish the purpose” then this is a whole new ballgame. If we are no longer using an infinite stick to judge and control others, then we can focus on what these verses are really saying. And here’s what that is. Those verses about punishment are saying that sin is serious and that God cares deeply about how we live. You know who gets the eternal punishment in Matthew 25? It’s the people who ignore the hungry and thirsty, the poor and the immigrant, the sick and the prisoners. Eternal punishment, the punishment of the eons, is reserved for those who don’t make meals for Family Promise and don’t lead Bible study in the jail. That’s what Jesus says. And whatever that punishment is, even if it’s not going to last for infinity, we still don’t want to experience it. God cares about how we live here and now. Our choices and our actions, NOT our beliefs or the thoughts in our head about God, our actions can access a life that endures beyond this one. Or our actions (and lack of action) can put us in a place where God needs to issue some correction to bring us in line with God’s plan for wholeness.
God is remaking this world. Now already, and one day completely. And we have the opportunity to participate in that. Eventually God will bring everything in line with love and restoration. How long it takes each of us to accept God’s invitation is up to us. We can join the party now and experience the life of the ages, or we can keep living for ourselves, ignoring the things God cares about, and set ourselves up to receive the kind of loving correction that any good parent would offer. It’s up to us. Let’s choose eternal life. Amen.