Halloween II: The zombie coming to life before our ears as well as our eyes

Halloween is just around the corner, when we celebrate the macabre and the scary, with ghosts, skeletons and zombies ‘in costume’ being seen and heard. With this focus the vast majority of us are missing the real zombie coming to life. If we listen carefully we will even be able to hear it. This zombie has been dead a long time – almost 2000 years – but her coming to life was predicted even further back.

Last Halloween, I introduced the Dry Bones that Ezekiel saw 2600 years ago coming to life. Here is a quick re-cap of what he saw:

… the bones covered the valley floor. They were scattered everywhere across the ground and were completely dried out. … Suddenly as I spoke, there was a rattling noise all across the valley. The bones of each body came together and attached themselves as complete skeletons. Then as I watched, muscles and flesh formed over the bones. Then skin formed to cover their bodies, but they still had no breath in them…. Then he said … “Come, O breath, from the four winds” … They all came to life and stood up on their feet—a great army. (Ezekiel 37: 2-10)

So what were these dry bones that so Halloween-ishly transformed into zombies and then stood up into a vast army? We do not need to guess because Ezekiel explicitly wrote that:

Then [God] said to me, “… these bones represent the people of Israel. … I will open your graves of exile and cause you to rise again. Then I will bring you back to the land of Israel…. Then you will know that I, the LORD, have spoken, and I have done what I said. Yes, the LORD has spoken! … I will gather the people of Israel from among the nations. I will bring them home to their own land from the places where they have been scattered.” (Ezekiel 37: 11-21)

Even a cursory following of the news will put the tiny nation of Israel into our line-of-sight. From its remarkable United Nations declared re-birth in 1948, to its many wars in the subsequent decades, to the intractable conflict with Palestinians and the wider world – that vision which Ezekiel saw 2600 years ago is happening right in front of our eyes – even up to that detail of the ‘vast army’ standing on its feet. The Israeli army today is literally regarded as one of the most formidable in the world.

But to focus only on what you see in the news is to miss what you may hear.  Because one important reason that made these ‘bones’ dry and dead was that for millennia the Jews had lost their language – Hebrew. But today we can literally hear its re-birth – if we listen.

Let me explain.

The Jews (or Israelites) have been conquered and sent into exile two times in her long history. The first exile and deportation was about 600 BC under the Babylonians and this exile lasted 70 years. The second exile was far more severe. The Romans in 70 AD sacked, destroyed and burned Jerusalem and sold the Jews into slavery across the Roman Empire. They were sent literally into the four corners of the world. This is why Jews today can be found in almost all countries of the world.

Historical Timeline of the Jews - featuring their two periods of exile

Historical Timeline of the Jews – featuring their two periods of exile

As Moses predicted 3500 years ago they have been living in host countries around the world since 70 AD, always in danger of overstaying their welcome.

In their complete destruction as a people they even lost their language – for centuries. Here is how Wikipedia summarizes the history of their Hebrew language.

Hebrew had ceased to be an everyday spoken language somewhere between the first and fourth centuries CE[10] and survived into the medieval period only as the language of Jewish liturgy and rabbinic literature. Then, in the 19th century, it was revived as a spoken and literary language, and, according to Ethnologue, is now the language of 9 million people worldwide,[11][12] of whom 7 million are from Israel.[3][13]

Hebrew ceased to be spoken for centuries – it was deader than Latin is today. But now it is spoken by 9 million people!  How often does something like this occur?  Let the syllabus of a course on this topic at Dartmouth College explain:

The rebirth of Hebrew as a mother tongue after two millennia is an event unique in sociolinguistic history. It happened through a constellation of radical political and ethnic aspirations, dire economic forces, and educational circumstances that may never be repeated, but none of which are in any way ‘miraculous’. This course examines how it happened, through the eyes of those who made it happen and contemporary sociolinguists and historians, and draws conclusions for language policy in other developing societies.

In the dry words of a university course syllabus, reviving a language not spoken for 2000 years is ‘unique in sociolinguistic history’ – there is just no other example like this out there. Of course, this occurred from a lot of hard and strategic work on the part of some key people – not by a ‘miraculous’ event as our syllabus is quick to point out. But what should be considered at least potentially miraculous is that Ezekiel 2600 years ago foresaw a national re-birth of such a scope. Who else can put that on his CV?

Actually, someone else can – Jeremiah.

Jeremiah who lived about the same time as Ezekiel (ca 600 BC) but in a distant country from him (Ezekiel was living as an exile in Babylon while Jeremiah was in Jerusalem) wrote as if foreseeing the same phenomenon

I will build you up again,
and you, Virgin Israel, will be rebuilt.
Again you will take up your timbrels
and go out to dance with the joyful….

“Sing with joy for Jacob;
shout for the foremost of the nations.
Make your praises heard, and say,
‘Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel.’
See, I will bring them from the land of the north
and gather them from the ends of the earth….

a great throng will return.

‘He who scattered Israel will gather them
and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.’
11 For the Lord will deliver Jacob
and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.
12 They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion;
they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord—…
13 Then young women will dance and be glad,
young men and old as well.
I will turn their mourning into gladness;
I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.  (Jeremiah 31: 4-13)

Jeremiah foresaw a return from ‘the ends of the earth’, but with a weighting from ‘the land of the North’ which would be joyful, with singing, timbrels, dancing and gladness. Jeremiah wrote this in Hebrew – his native language. But soon afterwards came the first exile to Babylon and many Jews stopped speaking Hebrew in favor of Aramaic. Then with the rise of Hellenism, Hebrew continued its decline and many Jews became Greek speakers. Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the Jewish writers of the New Testament wrote in Greek. Then, with the second, more extensive shattering and exile, the Hebrew tongue went dead for over one thousand years – until our day.

I had the privilege of traveling in Israel recently. There were many monuments, archaeological sites and ruins to see in a land that has such an ancient and tumultuous history. But I didn’t just see dead stones but heard a language spoken unassumingly by common every-day people.  I heard something ‘unique in sociolinguistic history’.  Most of these were recent arrivals from Russia (‘the land of the north’ as per Jeremiah) but I also met Jews from ‘the ends of the earth’ – and they were learning & speaking Hebrew.

One evening in Tiberias by the Sea of Galilee I went out for a stroll with my camcorder on me. Join with me in my short video/audio clip. Witness the ‘event unique in sociolinguistic history’ in joyful dance and song.  They were celebrating the close of Sukhot (Festival of booths) and the conclusion of the annual reading of the ‘Torah’ – the books of Moses.

These people I joined that night were not considering the irony of their sociolinguistic re-birth in the backdrop of all the Roman ruins and the now-dead Latin inscriptions, the seemingly invincible and permanent power and cause of their second demise.  Nor were they even thinking of Jeremiah’s words in the midst of their celebration. But that’s OK because Jeremiah wasn’t writing to them! He explicitly tells us that

“Hear the word of the Lord, you nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands …(v.10)

Though Ezekiel specifically addressed the Jewish people in his vision of Dry Bones, his colleague Jeremiah wrote specifically to the ‘nations’ in ‘distant coastlands’ – that’s you and me. He wanted us, not them, to take note of their re-born celebrations and then reflect.

Many of us wonder, in our educated and secular time, whether there really is a God out there. We see the mayhem, strife and death in the world around us and continually hear the naturalistic mantra in our educational media, as well as conspiracy theories about the gospel. So we surmise that if there is a God he is far removed from our world. Jeremiah wanted you and me to take note and listen to this new-born tune.

Because maybe this climate of our day comes from not looking, or in this specific case not listening, in the right place.  After all, our leaders and the media, educated and resourced with the best our society can give them, are still always being caught off guard by events that take them by surprise, from the global financial crisis a few years ago, to the Arab Spring, to the rise of the Islamic State – they are always caught with their pants down so-to-speak. In comparison, these ancient prophets seem to have a much better record – almost as if they have some Inside Information. They do claim that God was speaking through them. That can be easy to claim and many charlatans past and present continue to make that claim, but this Old Testament team backed it up by predicting in black-and-white the far future with uncanniness, even numerically. Perhaps we need to dust off the writings of these 2000+ year-old prophets and hear their case. Checking their works carefully may send a far greater shiver down your spine than any costume will this Halloween.

The Ebola Example: Could a loving God really send people to Hell?

One of the questions I had when considering the gospel had to do with hell. Probably like you I had heard preachers talk about it as if it was quite real – admittedly a rather frightening prospect. But then I also heard that God was ‘loving’ and that ‘God is love’. Taken together these principles were a paradox for me: How could a loving God send people to Hell?  At first glance it seemed that these two doctrines were at odds with each other. After all, if God ‘loved me’, surely he would not send me to Hell. Or, if God did send me to Hell then He certainly could not be loving, or at least not love me. One or the other may hold but the two together seemed contradictory. And then, since I usually heard about hell through some animated preacher, it made me wonder if they were just using fear tactics to exert control over me.

Ehrman and Hell

I am not alone. In fact, gospel arch-critic and renowned New Testament professor Bart Ehrman had this to say in one of his widely read books:

“… There is not literally a place of eternal torment where God, or the demons doing his will, will torture poor souls for 30 trillion years (as just the beginning) for sins they committed for thirty years. What kind of never-dying eternal divine Nazi would a God like that be? … We therefore have nothing to fear in death.”

Bart Ehrman. 2010. Jesus Interrupted: revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and why we don’t know about them). p. 276

Many of us may identify with Ehrman. And given that hell is such an ominous subject it is easy to dismiss it from serious thinking – in fact we explicitly avoid thinking about it – reasoning somewhat as Ehrman does, and feeling rather safe in the belief that the majority of modern and progressive people think similarly. We avoid thinking further about it and hope it will therefore go away.

What spurred me to think this through was to recognize that it is the truth or falseness of a belief that should be considered, not whether it is ominous or not, nor whether it is doubted by most. After all, before Copernicus, most people thought that the sun revolved around the earth – the majority were wrong. Furthermore, coming to grips with unpleasant outcomes are required for safe & healthy living. Campaigns about AIDS, drunk driving, and smoking are effective precisely because they force us to think about nasty consequences. We do not consider these campaigns manipulative or scare tactics. In fact, we are thankful that they raised an issue we perhaps did not want to think about, and in so doing, increased our safety and well-being.

Jesus and Hell

So, though the question of hell may not be in vogue, it is worth considering. For starters, it may be surprising to learn that it is Jesus Christ himself – the person who stands out in history as the teacher par excellence on topics such as mercy, forgiveness and the love of God (In fact the reason we associate love with God is largely through the influence of this man.) who also taught about hell. Notwithstanding his emphasis on the love of God, he also taught more about hell than all the other Biblical teachers combined. Consider the following quotes from Jesus:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’, will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven… Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers”   Matthew 7: 21-23

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited … but they refused to come. Then he sent more servants and … invited [them] … But they paid no attention and went off – one to his field, another to his business… Then the King said to his servants, ‘Go to the street corners and invite any you find’ … Then the king told the attendants ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’” Matthew 22: 1- 13

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, … he will sit on the throne in heavenly glory .. He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats … Then the King will say to those on his right [the sheep], ‘Come, … take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world …. Then he will say to those on his left [the goats], ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil …” Matthew 25:31-41

“It is better for you to enter the Kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell” Mark 9:47

“Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell” Luke 12:5

“Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside … But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you came from. Away from me all you evildoers” Luke 13:25-27

So warnings about the reality of hell, do not begin with obscure Biblical passages or wild-eyed preachers – they are centered in the teachings of Jesus himself.

Ebola and Hell

Ebola Quarantine Sign

Ebola Quarantine Sign

Enforcing Ebola Quarantine

Enforcing Ebola Quarantine

Suited up for Ebola

Suited up for Ebola

Suiting up for Ebola

Suiting up for Ebola

But then how do we reconcile these two seemingly opposing teachings? If ‘God is love’, how can hell be in the picture too? Perhaps the world-wide panic over the Ebola outbreak can serve as a vivid example of one portrait that Jesus used when he taught about Hell.

We see in the news how Ebola has spread through West Africa and has raised concerns around the world with the recent spread of infections to other regions. We have all seen the images of completely suited, masked and gloved nurses and doctors caring for those infected with Ebola and for those handling the bodies of the Ebola dead. The World Health Organization, infectious disease experts, and medical professionals are telling us that success or failure containing Ebola hangs on one overarching strategy – quarantine.   Ebola spreads by person- to-person fluid contact so the only way to control it is to quarantine and completely seal off those infected.   Even small tears in the protective suits and minor lapses in isolation protocol cannot be tolerated.

These thorough and sometimes frantic procedures to isolate and quarantine the Ebola virus are examples of a similarly systematic procedure to isolate a spiritual virus – and that quarantine is called Hell.

How is this so?

Ebola quarantine measures

Ebola quarantine measures

Heaven and Hell

Jesus centered his teaching on the coming of the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. When we think of ‘heaven’ we often think in terms of its situation or milieu – the ‘streets of gold’ as it were. But the greater hope of the Kingdom that Jesus anticipated is a society that will be comprised of citizens of exclusively honest and selfless character who therefore won’t pilfer the said gold off those streets. Continue down this line of thought and reflect on how much we build into the ‘kingdoms’ here on earth to protect ourselves from each other. We all have locks on our homes, advanced security systems even; we always leave our cars locked; we tell our kids not to speak to strangers. Can you even imagine a city without some ‘law enforcement’ in place? Why do we password protect all our personal electronic data? When you stop and think of all the systems, practices and procedures that we have put in place in our ‘kingdoms’ and realize that they are there simply to protect ourselves from each other then you may get a glimmer of a looming problem. It is like there is something awry with us.  If God were to setup a kingdom in the paradise of ‘heaven’ and then invite all of us to become citizens of it, we would quickly turn it into the hell we have turned this world into. The gold on the streets and the pearls on the gates would vanish in no time.

It would be even worse if there were only a narrow few who would not follow such a standard. Imagine a society where all the citizens were perfectly honest – no lies and no theft. In that society there would be no locks, no need of written contracts (because one’s word would be good enough), no security cameras, no computer passwords – because there would be no need of them in such a society. But if you then introduce just one citizen who is a liar and a thief he would disrupt that society far more than liars and thieves do here. Since there are no built-in precautions this one thief and liar can go about his activities with impunity – causing havoc among the citizens of the kingdom of heaven. The only way to keep this from happening is to make sure that not even one such person enters this kingdom – because then it would be ruined.

But what then for those who are denied entry? In this world, if you are denied entry to a country you cannot also expect to participate in its resources and benefits. For example, Canadian citizens can benefit from programs of its government. But someone who is denied access to Canada cannot expect to somehow receive its welfare, medical treatment etc. – this is arranged for its citizens.  But all in all, people around the world, even terrorists on the run from all countries, enjoy the same basic amenities of nature, such as breathing the same air, seeing the same light as everyone else.

But who made light? The Bible claims that ‘God said, “Let there be light” and there was light’. If that is true then all light is His – and it turns out that we are just borrowing it now. But with the final establishment of the Kingdom of God, His light will be in His Kingdom. So ‘outside’ will be ‘darkness’ – just as Jesus described Hell in one of the passages above.

If it is true that God is the Creator, then most of what we take for granted and assume is ‘ours’ is really His. Starting with such a basic entity as ‘light’ and then considering the world and going on to our natural abilities such as thought and speech – we really did nothing to create these abilities – we simply find ourselves using and borrowing them.   When the Kingdom is finalized the Owner will reclaim them.

When we look at barriers, past and present, erected to keep ‘barbarians’ out of civilization, from the Great Wall of China down to the present-day the fence proposed on the US-Mexcio border to keep illegal immigrants out, you can see that it is natural to erect barriers when a Kingdom must keep certain people out for the very sake of that kingdom. When Ebola breaks out and threatens death and havoc among us all we hear no argument when experts insist on quarantine. So it is no surprise to hear Jesus teach in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus that

And besides all this, between us (in Kingdom of God) and you (in Hell) a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us. Luke 16:26

The Love of God and Hell

So where does the ‘love of God’ fit in all this? When an epidemic rages, along with quarantine, there is a search for vaccines that can neutralize the deadly virus. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the corresponding inoculation. In trusting him we, in a sense, are injected with a spiritual vaccine that begins to disinfect us, slowly making us fit and able to enter into this Kingdom when it is fully established.

For Ebola victims what is most difficult to accept may not be the necessary quarantine, but rather it is that one has the disease to begin with.  Similarly, more difficult to accept than the reality of hell itself is that you and I are stricken with a deadly spiritual virus.  We fight that diagnosis, which leads many to ignore the cure.

Though it may be presumptuous to question a learned professor like Ehrman, and though my line of thinking cuts against the current of western culture today, Hell is quite consistent with the notion of a loving God – who created and owns all and is setting up a Kingdom where righteousness is the norm – not the exception – and therefore requiring restricted access. At the very least, since it is such a serious subject, and because God’s Love has moved him to make a ‘vaccine’ freely available, it warrants reflection on our personal spiritual diagnosis. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, developed by him to help us more clearly diagnose our fitness for the Kingdom of Heaven, may be a good place to start.