Doug Pagitt was recently interviewed on Way of the Master radio [mp3], he said some things to say about hell and Christian orthodoxy. You can follow the link and listen to what he says for himself before you make any conclusions about Doug Pagitt. Tons of internet junkies love to trash everybody and everything. Pagitt has his share of vitriol critiques and I do not want to attack the man. I also do not wish to judge or defend Way of the Master Radio and their ministry. Again, I don’t want to comment on the way either men conducted themselves. Rather I wish to provide an introduction to basic sources on the first century to show to think of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ spatially is not Platonic. While I do not consider myself within the streams of the “emerging church” I have sought and will seek “to offer critique only prayerfully and when necessary, with grace, and without judgment, avoiding rash statements, and repenting when harsh statements are made.” [source].
I want to take on Pagitt’s basic contention that the notion of ‘hell’ or ‘heaven’ as a place is Greek and Platonic not Hebraic. This goes along with my all too frequent rebuttals of this notion that evangelicals are Gnostic. I will first summarize the basic contention and offer a notion of ‘spatial’ that denotes heaven and hell as places but not necessarily within our “space-time continuum”. Then I will discuss the Biblical worldview and its Ancient Near East (ANE) and first century context. I will argue the incarnation and the ascension are essential for how we think of heaven. Finally, I will look at the basic creeds as well as Tertullian and Irenaeus to establish that by any normative sense of the word the notion of heaven and hell as a place is orthodox and not “Platonic”. This includes the sinners eternal condemnation to hell. My contention is that Doug Pagitt’s view, while admittedly not thoroughly articulated in the interview, is thoroughly unbiblical, it does not fit within the first-century Jewish worldview and the accusations of ‘Platonism’ towards orthodox Christians are at best a red herring and worst downright untrue.
I. Heaven and Hell as Spatial: Is this “Platonic”?
A. The interview with Pagitt, a summation.
After being asked about Jude 23 and ‘does he believe there is an eternal damnation.’ Pagitt goes on to describe damnation as parts of life and creation which are counter to life and what God is going. He says these are eliminated, removed and done away with. Pagitt then describes judgment as ‘God remakes the world.’ Then the host gives a standard orthodox definition of hell, lawbreakers damned to a place with weeping and gnashing of teeth, lake of sulfur, the worm never dies, eternal conscious torment (all Biblical images to describe something real). Then Doug Pagitt is asked “Agree or disagree”. Pagitt disagrees. So Todd Friel asks basically “What do you think hell is?” “Disconnection and disintegration with God” is the response. Doug then says ‘those sound like metaphors and not actualities.’ Then Pagitt accuses Friel of stringing passages together. After a question about where do Buddhist go when they die, Pagitt just shuts down. Pagitt says basically this suggests a place. ‘When you say: “Where do I go” your suggesting to me that the reign of God—the place of God, is an individual place that you go.’ And Friel confirms that is what he means. Doug Pagitt asks where is that place. Friel says it is called heaven. Friel affirms “we don’t know where it is exactly” but Pagitt jumps “why would you question where?” Friel responds just because we don’t know where it is doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Friel says this is basic Christian questions and Doug Pagitt throws out that this is not a ‘no brainer’ but Freil has made a non sequitur. So the question changes: “what happens to my soul when I die.” Pagitt’s response is you interact with God, just as every other human being. Pagitt affirms you get judged, but God will judge, heal, restore and repair the life of everybody in the same way. ‘There is no difference between the way God interacts with you when you die and the way he interacts with the Muslim when he dies.’ There is a good existence: same experience for all of humanity; the same no matter who you are or what you believe. But then says he cannot tell you how God will interact with particular hypothetical person and to try to do so is “not at all within the bounds of historic Christianity” Friel says that this is exactly what historical Christianity teaches. Pagitt suggests one read Acts 16, 17 and 18. When Friel says condemnation to hell is orthodox, Pagitt accuses him of not being orthodox but ‘stringing together a series of pop phrases that you’ve heard that you’ve heard from the Bible and making up your own conclusions to them.’ Then Pagitt offers comments on how to do theology. Speaking of Friel’s handling of Scripture, he then says ‘this is not how a reasonable person interacts with the Bible.’ There is a back and forth about hermeneutics. Then Pagitt laughs when Friel wants to focus on one verse. So Friel presses: ‘what about judgment verses?’ ‘It is illiminated from what God is doing in the world.’ Judgment is ‘replacing disagreement with God [sin] with agreement. Judgment is when God recreates the world in the way it ought to be. The purpose of judgment is purifying.’ So the purpose of judgment is the recreation of the heavens and the earth. So Friel asks “who will be there”. Recreation is not another place. “Places” is what Pagitt gets hung up on. Recreation of all that exists. So Friel asks: ‘Is it a real thing?’ And Pagitt responds, “I’m starting to worry that what you are articulating is a Platonic understanding of the kosmos…What you are into is some kind of dualistic Platonic understanding of the of the kosmos.” Friel does respond to Pagitt that there is a sense yes and a sense no that God is distant and removed from the earth. Pagitt says “that would be consistent with a Platonic understanding that heaven is this other place.” Friel gets basic and asks with heaven and earth be a real place? Pagitt responds that it’s the “recreated heaven and earth.” Friel asks “whose going to be there”. Again stuck on ‘there,’ Pagitt says “I have a very difficult time working with the dualistic Platonist like yourself because I have to be taken back and remind myself that rather than following the Jesus narrative I have to go into Plato and Socrates’ understanding of the kosmos so I can end up with a heaven in one place and sphere by one set of rules and the other in another sphere…” Friel asks what is heaven and hell. Pagitt states that Friel is creating a concept and asking him to define it. He then tells Friel to go read Plato or Dante. After a question about preaching at a Muslim funeral and what hope we can offer, Pagitt says we can offer everybody, including the dead Muslim the same hope: reconciliation to God that comes through Jesus Christ. Pagitt laughs off Friel’s simple question about understanding that he is outside of orthodox Christianity with his notion of reconciliation for all. He tells Friel what Friel is suggesting is outside of orthodox Christianity “because its riddled with Platonism and riddled with a cosmology that would never be acceptable to Christians through the ages.” After a commercial break, the interview is basically over.
I would invite the reader to listen to the interview and see if I have misrepresented either side in any way [mp3]. I tried to recount the interview as objectively as possible. One should draw their own conclusions on the exchange. I would further point out, that we need to be careful not to unduly use the interview to ‘trap’ Doug Pagitt, it was certainly not a complete articulation of his full orbed beliefs. Nevertheless, he makes two basic contentions that are historically untrue and indefensible: (1) if you consider heaven as a place you have succumbed to Platonic dualism. (2) the notion of unrepentant sinners (non-Christians) being condemned to hell is not Christian orthodoxy.[i]
B. A Couple of Terms:
1. For the interests of brevity, I will refer to Pagitt’s theory as the Platonic-universe theory or critique. This way, I do not have to refer to Pagitt’s theory in some longer sentence such as ‘heaven is a place is the product of Platonic thought.’ I will simply label what Pagitt has asserted as ‘the Platonic-universe’ theory for the sake of simplicity not to unduly stick a label on things. I recognize that Pagitt has more to his theology than this critique but it is just this critique we will address.
2. Defining “spatial”. I will attempt to argue that the heaven as a place was a notion consistent within the first century Jewish worldview. We will begin by discussing the basic tiered structure of the universe in the worldview of the Ancient Near East (ANE), which is clearly not Platonic. It is clear that while heaven is created, it is nevertheless a ‘place’. It is “above” the earth and about the firmament and upper level seas. In later Judaism, heaven is clearly the dwelling place of God even while He is actively inbreaking into His creation (particularly with the dawning age to come).
We can, in light of modern science, certainly acknowledge that heaven is not “up” in a physical or spatial sense. We do not have to deny its existence or be radically skeptical about it like the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin who entered space and proclaimed “I don’t see any God up here.” Nevertheless, the true Christian confession maintains that Christ has ascended into heaven and because He goes there as fully incarnated, albeit glorified, it has to be a place. The incarnation is once for all time and continues into the ‘forever more life’. Heaven is created, while God is active in heaven, the locus of His glory dwells in heaven as a thrown over all creation, the presence of Christ there demands that it is a “place.” Thus, I affirm that we don’t have to know “where” it is in reference to our space-time continuum and the ‘earthly realm’ (including outer space and galaxies) is clearly distinct from heaven, yet we affirm heaven as a exists and Christ is there. We will argue that this is not Platonic.
The notion of a throne of God and Christ at God’s right hand is certainly a metaphor yet this does not mean unreal. All of God’s speech to us in condescended to our level so that we might grasp truth that are simply beyond us [Isaiah 55:9]. Thus, metaphors do not describe things that are less than real or less than actualities. Scripture lisps baby-talk so that we might grasp things beyond us. This is true of both heaven and the new creation since we cannot fathom what God has prepared for his people [1 Cor. 2:9].
3. Horizontal and vertical eschatology. I will refer to a horizontal eschatology as what we consider basically “salvation history.” This horizon moves towards a climax known basically as ‘the last days’[ii] or ‘the age to come’. This is standard within first century Judaism (e.g. IV Ezra) of Jesus’ day. It is also clear in the New Testament. For the New Testament eschatology is central to God’s revelation in Christ and the dawn of the kingdom. Yet, the kingdom is only inaugurated in an already not/yet.[iii] Another corollary of this Biblical position is a vertical eschatology. This accounts for the ancient worldview of tiers between sheol, earth and heaven along with the cosmic structures of temples and Mt. Zion in the Old Testament.[iv] This vertical element is sadly often neglected or at least relegated to virtual obscurity by contemporary Biblical scholarship though.[v] In this vertical, the Son is sent from heaven and ascends back into heaven where He reigns over all things with all things under His authority. The Son both sits at the right hand of the Father and stands to make intercession. Nevertheless the Son in heaven, the throne of God.[vi] This vertical element does not preclude God from being presently active in the world as the kingdom expands and God’s people are being transformed into His temple. In fact, the consummation of the horizontal progress is precisely the descent of the vertical and the remaking of all creation so that God’s dwelling is with man (Rev. 21:2). All creation becomes a new garden of Eden/temple for God and the light from the throne of God descended lights up everything (Rev. 22:1-5). Just as the horizontal climaxes so the vertical descends. The two are integrally wedded within a truly Biblical frame work. Yet this recreation does not preclude eternal conscious torment upon some (Rev. 20:15; Isaiah 66:24, et al).[vii]
[i] Of course, both sides agree that reconciliation to God is through Jesus Christ, the question is do all people experience that reconciliation or do some not receive reconciliation and are punished in hell. It is possible that when Friel questioned Pagitt about knowing that he was outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy, Pagitt thought Friel was only referring the idea of Christ' reconciling us. Friel was clearly referring to the notion that all without distinction are reconciled and restored. Either way, Pagitt seemed to clearly affirm that there is no eternal condemnation but all are restored and purified through the judgment, which is outside of the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy.
[ii] [ii] See Gen 49:1; Num 24:14; Dt 4:30; 31:29; Isa 2:2; Jer 23:5, 20; 31:17; Dan 2:28; 10:14; Hos 3:5; Mic 4:1-3 for 'the last days' and its cognates.
[iii] A standard perusal of relevant literature including George Ladd’s Theology of the New Testament, The Presence of the Future; Geerhardus Vos’s Pauline Eschatology, Biblical Theology, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, The Teaching of the Epistle of Hebrews, The Teaching of Jesus Concerning the Kingdom of God and the Church; Ridderbos’ Paul: An Outline of His Theology, Paul and Jesus, When the Time had Fully Come, Thy Kingdom Come; Cullmann's Salvation in History, Christ in Time, Dunn’s The Theology of Paul the Apostle, Beasley-Murray Jesus and the Kingdom; N.T. Wright’s The Climax of the Covenant, The New Testament and the People of God, and Jesus and the Victory of God, Moore, The Kingdom of Christ, and countless other works of Biblical scholarship.
[iv] We hope to expand this more but see G.K. Beale The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004) and Jon D. Levenson Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible (San Francisco: Cal.: Harper Row, 1985).
[v] Although see Vos’s Epistle to the Hebrews especially chapter 3. Ladd’s Theology of the New Testament p67, diagram and Murray’s Structural Strands in New Testament Eschatology. It is possible that we most Christians are so familiar with the vertical aspect that it is the horizontal aspect that is alien to us and rightly receives emphasis and attention. At the consummation of things, the vertical dimensions will disappear as God’s dwelling is with man (Rev. 21:2).
[vi] Matthew 5:34; 23:21-22; Isaiah 66:1; et al. John 13:1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God,
[vii] We trust this is not stringing verses together although articulating a detailed exegesis of each verse within each respective context would turn all already long paper (series of posts) into an major book project. I would simply invite the person to embark on their own study of the verses and consult the relevant commentaries and exegetical treatments of the topic.