In my summaries of the Apocalypse of Peter and the Apocalypse of Paul, as a couple of readers noticed, there was a striking difference in emphasis. Both of these early Christian texts (the first from the second century, the other from the fourth or possibly the fifth?) narrate guided tours of the realms of the blessed and of the damned, and both seem more interested in describing the torments of the lost than the ecstasies of the saved.
The former focuses on moral sins that lead to eternal punishment: seductresses, adulterers, murderers, children who are disobedient to parents, slaves who are disobedient to masters, women who had sex before marriage; and sundry other things. To be sure, some of the sins are “religious” – blasphemy, socerery, and so on. But in this case, “torment is for everyone forever according to his deeds.”
The Apocalypse of Paul, on the other hand, is far more concerned about sins within the church, sins of ecclesiastical and doctrinal error: ascetics who break their vows; church people not commited completely to the Christain life (boiled in fire forever); those who took communion even while being in extra-marital affairs; bishops who did not conduct themselves properly; and most notably, heretics who do not agree that Christ was fully human or that he was physically raised in the flesh.
I am puzzled by …
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I am puzzled by many things by the Apocalypse of Paul – why, for example, it is so much harsher on sins committed by Christians than by pagans. I suppose Christians have less excuse. But also, what one believes is so important for one’s salvation. You better believe the right things, or else.
The difference between these two texts makes me think of a general tension within the early Christian tradition. Parts of it stress that what really matters to God is how you lead your life, specifically whether you live a life of love and service to others or are, instead, a self-serving schmuck. Those who love will in the end be rewarded, but the schmucks will be punished.
You get this teaching, in my opinion, in the words of the historical Jesus. Jesus was certainly a completely committed Jew who understood the Torah to embody God’s will for his people. But he appears to have thought as well that all the Torah could be summarized in two of its key love commands, the central verses of Deuteronomy 6:4-6, that one should love God with all their heart, soul, and strength, and that of Leviticus 19:18 that one should love one’s neighbor as oneself. As Jesus is recorded as saying in Matthew (and possibly he really said this), “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
And so an eternally right relationship depends on living a life of love. Not on believing something about Jesus. As he says also, “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord will enter into the kingdom, but those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Calling Jesus Lord is not what matters. Doing what God wants is. And what God wants is love.
Thus the famous story of the judgment of the sheep and the goats that I have discussed before on the blog (Matthew 25:31-46). Whether or not someone knows who Jesus is or believes in him, it is the one who feeds the hungry, who provides clothing for those in need, and who visits those in prison who will enter an eternal reward; those who do not will enter into eternal punishment.
But there is an alternative strain in early Christianity, which insists that it is not a moral life that brings a right standing with God and eternal blessing. Instead it is proper belief. You get this particular view on Jesus’ lips, and on the pen of the narrator, in the Gospel of John. Whoever believes in the Son will have eternal life; whoever does not will face condemnation: “the wrath of God rests upon him” (John 3:36).
Even more explicit is the judgment scene of a little-read book of the New Testament, 2 Thessalonians, which talks about when:
The Lord is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at in all who have believed…. 2 Thess. 1:7-10, NRSV
If you’re not one of the “saints” who “have believed” in the gospel of Jesus – look out!
The book of Revelation is an interesting account – I’ll be talking about it at length on the blog – and after all these years I’m not sure about a number of its details. For example, it is only the Christian martyrs who will rule with Jesus during the future millennium (Rev. 20:4-6). But the ultimate judgment – does someone enter into the new heavenly Jerusalem or are they chucked into the lake of eternal fire? – depends on “what they have done” (20:12-13). The fiery lake is reserved for “murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars. Their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and Sulphur, which is the second death” (21:8).
So which is it? Correct belief? Good behavior? Both? If both, is it that correct belief leads to good behavior, and without the former you could not have the latter. If so … really?
I see this as a real tension in early Christian teaching. It is one of the things I want to grapple with as I think about the development of the early Christain understanding of the afterlife.