I’ve written about angels before, in different contexts. Here I want to address the most basic question about angels, to wit: Do they exist? My answer, not to leave you in suspense, is “yes”, but it will require a bit of unpacking to get there.
Part of the reason I write this is that a periodic interlocutor on another blog I frequent habitually argues that “angels” are to be understood not as separate beings, but rather as manifestations or perhaps appendages of God. An “angel of the LORD”* is no more an individual entity than my hand or foot is. I disagree with this, but there is some ground for this assertion.
A few days ago I was sitting in a Wal-Mart, waiting to get a tire replaced on my car. I had my Kindle Fire with me so I’d have something to read. Recently I posted here about The Gospel of Thomas. Since I had the ebook version of The Gnostic Bible on my Fire, I decided to open it up and reread The Gospel of Thomas. I got to the first page and stopped. I remembered that I’d started to read this particular translation before, and stopped; and I remembered why I’d stopped. The introduction to Thomas says,
The translation gives the Semitic forms of Semitic names, in order to highlight the Jewish identity of Jesus and his students and the Jewish context of the life of the historical Jesus. For example, the name Yeshua is used for Jesus; the other names are identified in the notes.
Thus, the first line of the translation reads, “These are the hidden sayings that the living Yeshua spoke and Yehuda Toma the twin recorded.” “Yehuda Toma” is the Aramaic for Judas Thomas–the disciple known as “Thomas”, literally “twin”, in the canonical gospels, and referred to also as Judas or Judah here and in other non-canonical sources. This irritates the crap out of me, and the rest of this post will unpack the whys of this irritation.
An excellent post from Agostino Taumaturgo at the Thavma Press blog. Some themes tie in with my last post. Enjoy!
We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world. In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.
In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol. Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors. These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted. Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it). By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths. To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).
In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are). I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.
This series on universalism has looked at the topic from the perspective of Christianity. This is because, first of all, I myself am a Christian, of the Catholic variety. Second, despite universalist themes that go back to the very beginning of the faith, Christianity has by and large been construed as non-universalist; thus, the necessity of making arguments in favor of universalism. I thought, however, that it would be interesting–and perhaps instructive–to look at the other great religions and their teachings on the afterlife, especially as regards the notion of universalism. In order to avoid an inordinately long post, I’m going to break this up by category. This post will deal with the Abrahamic religions.
The Abrahamic faiths are, obviously, those closest to Christianity in worldview in general, and in views of the afterlife in particular. Thus, we will look at them first. Judaism and Islam are obvious candidates, of course. However, I will also give a brief consideration to Gnosticism, Mormonism, and also to the Bahá’í Faith, for reasons I’ll elaborate below. We will look at them in historical order, beginning with Judaism.
For Leonard Nimoy, who died today, the Kaddish, the traditional Jewish prayer of mourning:
May the great Name of God be exalted and sanctified, throughout the world, which he has created according to his will. May his Kingship be established in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of the entire household of Israel, swiftly and in the near future; and say, Amen.
May his great name be blessed, forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled, honored elevated and lauded be the Name of the holy one, Blessed is he- above and beyond any blessings and hymns, Praises and consolations which are uttered in the world; and say Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven, and life, upon us and upon all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who makes peace in his high holy places, may he bring peace upon us, and upon all Israel; and say Amen.
Last time we looked at ancient religion and noted that the so-called “Three C’s” of religion–that is, Cult (worship), Creed (belief), and Conduct (behavior)–were generally separate. The great exception to this was Judaism. To lay the background, it’s important to note what Judaism is not. Judaism is typically contrasted with the other religions of antiquity in that it is said to be the first monotheistic religion. In fact, the evidence is that Judaism in its inception was henotheistic, not monotheistic. That is to say, while only one god, YHWH, was worshiped, the existence of other gods was not denied. Traces of this can be found in places in the Bible such as Genesis 1:26, Exodus 15:11, and Psalm 95:3, among others. Full monotheism–the belief that only one god exists–developed gradually, becoming more or less set by the prophetic era (7th to 6th Centuries BC).
Judaism was also not the first monotheistic religion. Atenism, the religion of the so-called “heretic Pharaoh” Akhenaten, as well as Zoroastrianism, were both arguably monotheistic (although there is debate on this; but that’s a can of worms I don’t want to open now) before Judaism. The uniqueness of Judaism lay not in its monotheism or in its being the first religion to be monotheistic. Rather, it was the first religion that could be characterized as “ethical monotheism“.
Having talked about ways to understand and categorize religions, let’s now do so. There are various ways to do so: by geographic region (Asian religions, African religions, European religions, etc.); by founding (revealed religions vs. folk religions, etc.); and so on. I want to look at what might be called “genetic” or “family” relationships. That is, members of a particular faith might modify, develop, or alter doctrines, worldviews, and such, until what initially is a sort of heresy of the original religion becomes a brand new religion in its own right. That process is a topic for the future. Right now, I want to look at the “family” of religions that claims the most adherents worldwide, the Abrahamic family of religions.
In the early days of the United States, though the Founders strongly emphasized freedom of religion and did not, themselves, think of America as founded on Christianity or any other religion, the general feeling was that the U. S. was, in a sense a “Christian” nation. In the 20th Century, as the nation became more diverse, there was some effort to expand the definitions of U. S. religious culture. Particularly after World War II, in light of the Holocaust, and in an attempt at reparation for the Antisemitism that had been all too common previously, it became common, and later expected, to use the term “Judeo-Christian”. The idea was to emphasize commonalities–ethics, the Ten Commandments, etc.–as an attempt at a more irenic way of speaking about religions. It has been objected–and in my mind, rightly so, to some extent–that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a bit of a weasel word that improperly conflates vastly different faiths. Nevertheless, it has been thought of as a better-than-nothing term. However, as Islam has become more noticeable in our society, there has been a casting about for a new term. “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” and similar locutions have been tried, but are cumbersome. Finally, the term “Abrahamic” has been coined as a way of embracing the commonalities of all three religions. In this case, I think the term is good and useful. It is this which I wish to discuss.
Last time I talked about the New Testament. This post is a slight, but necessary tangent, since it deals with some issues that will be implicit in my discussion of the Old Testament.
Supersessionism is a complicated and fraught issue in Christian theology. Simply put, it is the theological doctrine that in some way or other the New Covenant in Christ has superseded–replaced, fulfilled, augmented, gone beyond–the Old Covenant, that is, the covenant between God and the Jewish people, recorded in the Old Testament.