For a large part of my growing up years, I would have said that I was a “Christian”.  This generally meant that I was one of ‘those people’ who went to church.  Looking back on my growing up years, I am not sure if I ‘went’ to church or was ‘drug’ to church.  I’d have to check in with my parents and siblings to see which mode of ‘going’ to church happened more frequently.  But the end result was always the same.  We were in church every Sunday morning! 

Now attending church and having a church family are not bad things.  Our family attended the local Pentecostal church in Pembroke, ON.  Pembroke Pentecostal Tabernacle was our church home.  Often with both sets of grand-parents, we made our way to ‘our spot’ every week in the sanctuary.  I laugh about it now, but make no mistake, church attenders are very partial to where they sit.  

Anyways, during my decades of attendance in the Pentecostal church, I was able to witness many different organizations, groups and presentations that seemingly made the circuit from church to church.  Perhaps the most vivid of all was called Heaven’s Gates and Hell’s Flames.

Under the guidance of this organization, the local church would undertake the massive challenge to create an elaborate set design and embark on producing a complex drama that involved numerous actors/actresses depicting various scenarios involving death.  Yes, that’s right, this widely popular church dramatic event was all about death and the afterlife. 

If you have never witnessed the drama, you can check them out online and actually still book them today.  But the gist of the drama is this.  At death, individuals are either welcomed into ‘heaven’ or dragged into ‘hell’.  These volunteer church members are casted to act out varying types of people who succumb to some sort of death.  Once death occurs, the individuals awaken to see a massive staircase that is surrounded and guarded by angels.  In a short period of time, the flabbergasted individuals eventually realize that they need to ask whether their name is written down in the ‘book of life’.  At this point, the angel standing by ‘the book’ either raises their arm and points to a door of light (to the sound of glorious music) or to a darkened pit area (to the sound of eerie music).  

If the destination is heaven, then the angels begin to smile and usher the blessed into the eternal bliss of heaven and arms of Jesus.  If the destination is hell, then demons would leap from the pit and begin to drag those whose names are not written in the book of life towards the darkened hole that has now come alive with smoke and flashes of red light.  The understanding is that these individuals are being tossed into the fires of hell.  And yes, the drama does illustrate this point very well.  People are tossed kicking and screaming into hell while the devil ghoulishly laughs the entire time.

It was quite a scene, and it played out several times.  

Now, having said that, I am not going to get into the merits of such a drama, or whether churches should have ever booked this organization and put on such a drama for their church and community.  My point in referencing this drama is this: Where did this understanding of the afterlife come from?  In other words, did the ancient world believe in realms like ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’?  And if so, what did it look like?

As I mentioned in my previous blog, that ancient world very much believed in an afterlife.  For the ancients, the question was not ‘if’ there was an afterlife, it was ‘what are the conditions in the afterlife, and how can I improve my fate there?’  In other words, the majority of ancient humanity accepted that death was not the end, but was somewhat of a new beginning.    

Now, of all the ancient afterlife perspectives mentioned so far, none have offered anything beyond the realm of the dead or envisioned that one’s body could actually return from the underworld.  But then came a man named Zoroaster.  

The main religion of the Persian empire established by Cyrus the Great was Zoroastrianism.  Its founder Zoroaster probably lived sometime in the late second millennium BC in central Asia.  Although there is actually very little about him, his influence was strong among the pre-Islamic Iranian people of Palestine.  Among other things, Zoroaster apparently had thoughts about what took place after death. 

For Zoroastrians, on the third day after death the soul ascends to the sacred mountain, where its previous thoughts and deeds are weighed.  If good dominates, the soul is granted access to heaven via a bridge.  If however the soul is bad, it plunges into a hellish underworld where an evil deity (Angra Mainyu) presided over retributive punishment until the end of the age.  

At the end of this time period or age, Zoroaster believed that there was going to be some sort of bodily resurrection and a final last judgement by fire.  Molten metal would erupt from the mountains to form a river of fire.  Both the re-embodied souls of the dead would then pass through the flowing inferno to separate the good from the bad.  The hope was that the good would be divinely protected and proceed to eternal bliss on a restored earth, while the bad would be completely consumed and totally annihilated.  The same river of fire would then continue to flow into hell itself and completely eradicate the satanic figure, his demonic horde and all evil in general. 

On earth, the blessed would share in a meal that makes their bodies immortal so that they are able to live forever in the kingdom of their good deity (Ahura Mazda) on a perfected earth that resembled a botanical garden (paradise) in Spring time.  

In summary, Zoroaster envisioned an afterlife that was based on one’s thoughts, words and deeds.  If you were blessed, the soul would return to ones body so that some sort of earthly future awaited.  This thought is somewhat unique in our journey so far.  For example, the Egyptians, although very elaborate in their underworld theories never envisioned a bodily resurrection.  In fact, scholars tell us that the successive Mesopotamian cultures of Sumerians, Assyrians and Babylonians did not believe in a bodily resurrection from the dead.  For Media and Persia however, it seems apparent that there was some sort of belief that ones body would return to earth once again.  

Here is where I will end for this week.  

I am writing this blog on Easter weekend.  Easter is a very important weekend for many faith traditions that derive from ancient Israel and the Israelite tradition itself. In fact, Judaeo-Christianity and the plethora of Christian traditions in the West all stem from the same Jewish root.  

So this is where we will turn next: What does the Bible say about death, afterlife and the realm of the dead?

Until then. 


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