Heaven and Earth # 5: Jewish Hope & Greek Ghosts

This week we defined what it was the Jewish people hoped for. We read where the Jews saw the “sea” is the source of evil (Psalm 77, 114, 69, 93, etc.) We especially looked at Daniel 7 where four beasts that rule the kingdoms of the world, rose up out of the “sea” and exercised oppressive rule over the world.

So what did the Jews hope for? Quite simply, God! Which is not typically what we do today, is it? We like to put a face on evil, and pretend it is both apart from us, and something we can manage (or kill). But the Jews resisted this temptation. (And Paul urges Christians to resist putting a face on evil too! Eph. 6:12) They named the “sea” as the source of evil in the world. And you can neither manage or kill the sea! Neither can you pretend it isn’t there (especially if you live on the coast). You simply have to trust God and repeat over and over that “Mightier than the breakers of the sea, God on high is mighty!” (Psalm 93).

And that is the point – trusting God. Not our own devices, not our weapons, not our armies, not our guns, not our words, not our money, not our influence…. just God.

And this is precisely what the Jews hoped for – God. And they had little or no illusions of a “here-after” deliverance. They hoped specifically for a Messiah. A in time and history, with flesh and blood, redeemer, to come and set them free.

So, why have we “spiritualized” and “privatized” this hope? Instead of longing to see God save “us” we think more about God saving “me”. And instead of God offering real, in-time-and-history deliverance, we look for the time when we can get “our mansion over the hilltop”. We sing songs that say “When I die… I’ll fly away!”

You quickly get the impression that we have no hopes for God intervening in human history to redeem and deliver his people. But he has. And he is! So what happened? Greek philosophy happened!

Homer wrote that when Achilles tried to embrace his dear friend Patroclus, he flitted to and fro like a “psychai” or a ghost. Later in the Odyssey, Odysseus meets his mother in the land of the dead and she is but a “shade” or shadow, and “cannot be clasped”.

Plato, who invented the university, later built on this and said, “how will we get people to obey the law, serve in our armies, and be good citizens, if they believe that they afterlife is but of gibbering ghosts and a gloomy underworld? Rather the youth should be taught the true philosophy: that death is not something to be dreaded but a welcome friend that frees the soul from the prisonhouse of the body, to live blissfully as “psychai” forever on the Island of the Blessed.

Sound familiar? The sad truth is that “I’ll fly away” is wonderful Greek Philosophy, but it is terrible biblical theology.

I wonder, what do you believe happens when you die? This will be the starting point of our discussion this next Sunday. We will look closely at the scenes surrounding Jesus’ own death and resurrection to see what we can glean… but in the mean-time, what do you believe? What have you been taught?


  1. I guess my question is, Brother Joe, what Jewish vision of Messiah are we to have shape our reliance on God to provide our salvation?

    Are we to look to God to provide the type of retribution on our oppressors that was visited on Pharoah’s minions, David’s enemies, and that which most Messianic Jews of the First Century looked for? After all, that was the basic Jewish paradigm shown in much of the Old Testament. Some prophets like Daniel and Isaiah had some vision of the Suffering Servant Messiah, but there were not many like them. And the Jews of Jesus day also looked for a Davidic deliver to rid them from the Roman and the Herodian yoke.

    If we are looking to mainstream First Century Jewish thought about God is this what we see? And what about the didvisons in those days between sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, etc. I guess what I understand to be a rather distinct First Centurt Jewish pluralism about God and the role that he will play vis-a-vis the Hebrew people makes it difficult for me to see a central Jewish paradigm about how God was to “act” during their day.

    Sorry if I am muddying the water here!


  2. Thanks for the question. Basically, I hear you asking me what first century “hope” am I endorsing… is that right?

    Well, to be clear, I don’t endorse the comprehensive version of any of these hopes (Saducee, Pharisee, Essene, etc.) rather I am only trying to point out that we get our theology from Greek Philosophy, rather than scripture.

    I tried to point to older texts than first century passages in class, to show that the Jewish hope, in general, was for a concrete, in-time-and-history, here-and-now, real life, with flesh, Messiah. Juxtapose this view of salvation and hope with the Greek view of hope and afterlife. The Greeks hoped to escape this world – the Jews expected God to work through them to redeem the world. The Greeks hoped to escape the body and regarded it as generally bad (sometimes describing it as “the prison-house” of the soul.) – the Jews saw the body as a valuable gift from God to be preserved and taken care of.

    We will look this week, at how Jesus took the Jewish hope and gave it a fuller meaning in His own resurrection (and in His teachings on resurrection).

    So my point was not really to point to the specifics of every 1st Century Jewish sect and distinguish a monolithic Jewish hope. Rather I wanted to point to the general Jewish hope across history. Namely that they longed for real, in-time-and-history deliverance. And I wanted to set this in contrast to the Greek worldview to show that our own view comes dangerously close to a pagan hope, rather than the hope of God’s historical people and promise. Jesus builds on that hope as we will soon see.

    • Thanks for keeping me focused, Brother Joe!

      In the process (nice concept, “process”, isn’t it?), at laest to my mind, you also “mopped up some of what was still on the floor” after last Sunday. That is, much of what has been long understood in Western Christian theology as the relational design between God and His Creation bears little resemblance to that of the culture into which God sent Jesus.

      So, to me, the question now is:

      Did Jewish theology as expressed in the writings that we now call the Old Testament correctly capture the nature of God as He worked in restoring His Creation to perfection or did the Church Fathers of Late Antiquity and the Medieval Period discover errors by filtering Jewish concepts of God and Creation through a Neo-Platonic screen?

      • Steve –

        Good question! A simplified (perhaps over-simplified) way of asking it, might be, “But is it possible that the Jews were wrong?”

        I think, depending on their social location within this or that particular OT text, you may find that there were some misunderstandings. As I pointed out last week, we see in Mark 10:35-45, that James and John were wrong about the nature of the Salvation or “Glory” of YHWH that they had long awaited. And Jesus corrected them.

        But it has long been assumed that Jesus’ rebuke here, is pointing to another or “other worldly” kingdom. But this isn’t what Jesus said, is it!? Rather than disputing the disciples assumption that the kingdom would be a concrete, in-the-midst-of-human-history, kingdom, he rather disputed that the means of the kingdom would be nonviolence and based on “service under” people rather than “power over” others – even enemies.

        I mean if you want to look for God’s salvation breaking into the world today…. if you want to search for a “kingdom” that embodies this kind of “will of God” breaking into our own world, then I would advise to not look at any State or Authority. You simply will not find it there.

        The disciples (among other “good” Jews) hoped for a concrete Messiah to sit in “glory” as head over Israel. Indeed he has done this, but just not in the “ways” that some of those Jews assumed he might.

        And this is the point at which Jews (some of them – it would wise to point out that more than one prophet had an understanding and “knowledge of God” that allowed them to foresee the Messiah as a “suffering servant” rather than a worldly ruler with might and power) misunderstood God’s salvation.

        I don’t think that they (the Jews) would have fallen victim to a Platonic worldview then. I mean consider the very Jewish sentiment of Paul in Colossians 2:8 “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.”

        I hope this in some way helps bring clarity. And I hope, furthermore, that I am bearing faithful witness here to the biblical trajectory of “hope”.

  3. Steve –

    I would also like to point out that the theology of Karl Barth is very helpful here. In Church Dogmatics, in the portion dealing with the doctrine of reconciliation, he begins by saying that the general and central point of all theology is that “God is with us” or “God with us”. He says that this is mainly a proclamation about God, not us. That God would, in His essence, choose to not be God without a people to be with. Barth points to Isaiah 7 and 8 – and then to Matthew 1 to show that this is the will of God, and this “will” has a name… Emmanuel (God with us).

    If this is the core of Jewish and Christian theology, then Greek philosophy suffers at the very heart of theology. It misses the essence of God, and the core of Life with God. Namely that God chooses to be with his people in and throughout history. Sadly, much Western “Christian” theology has left this proclamation to paint a picture of a distance, vengeful God with an arbitrary law. In this Grecian view, when atonement is made for the “soul” then when you die you “go to heaven” – but if atonement is denied, then you “go to” hell. But this view misses, as Barth says, the heart of theology.

    • Thanks again, Brother Joe!

      First of all, I’m impressed that you have tackled Barth and seem to, at least, gpotten your arms around some of his most foundational expressions of his understanding of the God and man relationship. I must confess that I have never gotten far into any of Barth’s works and I’ve not made it far into Church Dogmatics. our Friend Emil Williams is something of a Barth scholar – so you might enjoy a sit down with him on this topic sometime. My greatest take away from Barth is his summation of the core of the Gospels “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” I am strongly of the opinion that sometime we get too caught up in complex explanations (dogmatics) of the simple truth of God’s love for us and all of His Creation.

      This makes me wonder if, in all of our current poking around to discover what we believe about some rather core concepts of Chsitianity, we sometimes get too focused on trying to get our minds around something that we’ll never completely be able to rationalize. There are more mysteries of the Faith than objective conclusions.

      One of my favorite Pauline truths is that whch he brought to us in his first letter to the church in Corinth when he reminds us:

      We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!
      But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love. (The Message)

      Pardon me for using the paraphrased version of 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 but the “flow” of thuis language is reassuring to me, “me” being one who is prone to need to understand before I can believe (a modern “curse” that came to predominate in the West by the end of the Medieval period).

      Also, this reminds me that I would probably be best served if I came to rely on more a liturgical form in my worship and meditation in the use of the Creeds, whether it be the Apostles Creed of the one called Nicene. These age old points of focus will keep my proclivity to “major in minors” more to a minimum.

      Although I know that you are very familiar with them, I’ve copied them below for others who might read your blog and who might not know of them to read.

      pardon my ramble – Just some Saturday reverie of a very imperfect man.


      Apostles Creed

      I believe in God the Father Almighty Creator of Heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
      I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy catholic Church, the communion of saints the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

      Nicene Creed

      I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, and born of the Father before all ages. God of God, light of light, true God of true God. Begotten not made, consubstantial to the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. And was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary and was made man; was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried; and the third day rose again according to the Scriptures. And ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of the Father, and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose Kingdom there shall be no end. And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who together with the Father and the Son is to be adored and glorified, who spoke by the Prophets. And, I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. I confess one baptism for the remission of sins. And I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

  4. Steve –

    Barth’s Dogmatics are actually best seen as an elaborate exposition of the “concreteness… of the heart of the Christian message, and the heart of the Creeds.” (Those were Barth’s words from his “The Work of God the Reconciler” )

    I think, we must remember that the “task of Theology” is the ongoing work and ministry of God’s people. We must do it “with fear and trembling” and remember for who it is we do it – namely God. I have to confess, I have been troubled lately by some comments like “This is not a salvation issue.” This is, I believe, a bad way to approach theology. It’s even ironic that such comments would be stated in the context of what we are studying – namely salvation. So “Salvation is not a salvation issue” is what we mean?

    Precisely it is the issue… at least the issue at hand for us now. And what we believe about it is important for reasons we may not suppose.

    So I would rather us say something along these lines “I am determined not to take myself too seriously. But I will take the Temple (God’s indwelt people – the church of God – very seriously). And our task is to come together, as a witness to a hopeless world, to order our lives around Him that is our Center. And that involves carefully working out what we believe about him and his world and his people. Theology.

    But I indeed appreciate any attempt to refocus our efforts in a communal way, away from any notion of privatized faith… “Well, what I believe…” And, much to your honor and wisdom, I have found the liturgy (the creeds, prayers, and formative language or God’s people through the ages) is exactly the place we ought to turn. This gets us out of our privatized, individualized, spiritualized rut and places us in a distinct community. And in this context, we will find that working out “our salvation with fear and trembling” is possible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s