Heaven and Hell: Eliminated By Modernism

By Dan King

Those students of the Bible who have drunk deeply at the wells of modernism have been affected in most every area of their study. The conclusions which they draw are slanted away from any literal application of scriptural texts which touch upon such subjects as the miraculous, the unseen realm, angels and demons, inspirational and prophetical activities of God – in short, most every theme which makes the Bible a unique production of the Holy Spirit. The biblical doctrines of heaven and hell, found as they are in quite literal contexts, are not subject to any approach which would spiritualize them away. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have attempted this with hell, but do not use the same or comparable logic with heaven. The effect of modernism is to rationalize them away, seeing them in terms of ancient mythopoeic thought.

Modernists neutralize both biblical notions, describing them as part of the mythic world of the ancients. Believing, as they do, that the writers of the Bible lived in societies which were backward and pre-scientific in their perspective upon all aspects of life, they imbibed these viewpoints, even though they were filled with folklore, legend, and common myth. The result is that they produced a literature which was characterized by belief in such. The biblical books are representative of the larger body of that literature, differing from it only in that these works were the “survivors.”

Genesis and Creation Myth

It has long been held by liberal scholars that the creation narrative of Genesis chapters one and two is heavily dependent upon ancient Babylonian myth. In the middle of the last century archaeologists unearthed Assyrian copies of the old Babylonian creation and flood stories at Nineveh in the library of Ashurbanipal (669-633 B.C.), the last great king of the Assyrian empire. In 1876 George Smith, a young Assyriologist at the British museum, published his epoch-making book The Babylonian Account of Genesis, which recounted the Babylonian creation myth, the Enuma elish (named after its opening words: “When on high. . . “). At first liberal scholars were tempted to think that practically everything in the old Testament was borrowed from Babylon. Hugo Winckler became father to the theory called the “pan-Babylonian” view of biblical origins. His books Geschichte Israels (Vol. 1, 1895) and Das alte Westasien (1899) precipitated the “Bible vs. Babel” controversy, when Friedrich Delitzsch took his viewpoint to the ultimate extreme in Babel und Bibel (1902). Delitzsch attempted to show that there was nothing in the Old Testament that was not but a pale reflection of Babylonian ideas.

Hermann Gunkel, who authored Shopfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (“Creation and Chaos in Beginning-time and End-time, ” 1895), was one of the first to assess this mythological tradition upon the Bible. From a “history of religions” viewpoint, Gunkel argued that the Babylonian creation myth concerning Marduk’s victorious combat against the dragon Tiamat and her chaotic allies had tremendous influence upon the writers of Scripture. And, although his approach has since been refined by subsequent scholars, Bernhard W. Anderson in his book Creation versus Chaos, still posits that the Babylonian story is at the root of the entire ancient near eastern tradition which became the source for the Bible narrative. All he adds, in terms of approach, is a discussion of the mythological texts from Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit) dating from about 1400 B.C., wherein Baal, the storm god of old Canaan battles Yam the god of the sea, and Nahar the god of the River. He, like many other modern liberal scholars, sees Canaanite religion as the bridge through which these notions were mediated to ancient Israel.

Despite the fact that scholars have often demonstrated the glaring differences between the creation story as told in Genesis and that in the Babylonian epic, and how strained are the similarities, this position continues to be put forward as the correct one. K.A. Kitchen writes: “Assyriological scholarship has by now largely rejected the old idea that Genesis 1-2 had any close relation at all with Enuma elish. Such is essentially the verdict of Heidel, Kinnier-Wilson, Lambert, and Millard, for example. Writers on the Old Testament who suggest the contrary are out of date” (The Bible in its World 27).

Biblical Cosmology

Perhaps more to the point, the idea of cosmology as taught in the Bible has come under fire as one aspect of modernism’s assault on scriptural concepts. Heaven and hell are viewed as aspects of a “three-storied universe” which went out of vogue conceptually with the beginning of the scientific era. The old notion is seen as having been a part of the fabric of ancient thought about the world. One scholar articulates it this way:

By 3000 B.C., Sumerian culture in lower Mesopotamia had already worked out, it seems, a view of the universe which was to endure with only minor modifications for over 2000 years. The threefold division of the universe with which we are familiar from the Bible is found in Sumerian culture. Heaven, consisting of various regions, is the abode of the gods. The earth, conceived of as a disk, and the underworld complete the divisions of the universe. The primeval waters are located both above the vault of heaven and below the earth. The upper and lower seas (the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf) represent the limits of the earth. The vault of heaven rests upon the outermost bounds of the earth, thus enclosing man in an earth which is protected from destruction by the firm underside of heaven and by the under-earth mountains which support the disc-earth over the lower primeval waters. This cosmological picture is precisely that found in the Old Testament (Walter Harrelson, The Significance of Cosmology in the Ancient Near East 257; also in From Fertility Cult to Worship 2).

In order to make the Old Testament fit this scenario, modernist scholars must do two things. First, they find it necessary to literalize highly figurative expressions from the book of Psalms and elsewhere. Terms like “waters above the firmament” are taken for seas that existed above the sky, rather than the sources of rain in the clouds; “storehouses of snows,” “storehouses of hail,” and “chambers of the winds” are taken literally – even though we might ourselves use such language today in a figurative sense. “Waters under the earth” are viewed as underground rivers of the nether world, instead of the waters of the ocean (which are indeed below the land). Heaven and hell are seen as mere holdovers in this ancient way of seeing the universe. Modern scientific man should not take them seriously, for they are precritical in their origin.

The second thing many scholars do is to ignore the general tendency of the Old Testament to strike out beyond the mythic approach to the world as taken by Israel’s neighbors, and even to attack many of their ideas directly. In a most helpful chapter in the book Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man, called “The Emancipation of Thought From Myth” the authors (H. and H. A. Frankfort) suggest that Israel broke from the mythic traditions of the ancient world: “The God of the psalmists and the prophets was not in nature. He transcended nature and transcended, likewise, the realm of mythopoeic thought. It would seem that the Hebrews, no less than the Greeks, broke with the mode of speculation which had prevailed up to their time” (237).

Probably the most outrageous statement of this belief, as it applies to the New Testament, came from the pen of Rudolf Bultmann in his essay New Testament and Mythology: “The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. The world is viewed as a threestoried structure, with the earth in the center, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath . . . Supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature . . . Miracles are by no means rare.” Bultmann did not conceal his general skepticism, suggesting that the New Testament needed to be “demythologized” in order to be rescued from this prescientific thinking. Bultmann’s favorite teacher was the avowed atheist Heid.egger who applauded Bultmann for “making theology out of my philosophy” (quoted in Carl F.H. Henry, Frontiers in Modern Theology 19). Although much of his methodology has gone by the wayside as newer scholars and schools of thought have taken his place, yet there is still a skepticism on the part of the liberal scholars as to the existence of the unseen realm.

A Kinder, Gentler Doctrine

Finally, the liberal approach to heaven and hell have been affected by the tendency among liberal scholars to make Christian doctrine “nice” and “clean it up” so that it is more acceptable to the modern mind. Of course, the modern mind tends to be much more hostile to the notion of punishment, especially if it is considered harsh. In our own society it is the liberal who is ever worried over whether government will mete out some punishment which is considered “cruel and unusual” (i.e. the death penalty), and so contrary to the constitution. Beyond this, the liberal is concerned that we not punish the criminal at all. He is more interested in having a programme of rehabilitation rather than punishment. “Give the guy another chance . . . and another . . . and another.” Never mind the consequences for society generally or for the victims specifically.

There is little doubt that the same thinking is at work in the effort to undermine the biblical doctrine of hell. The liberal cannot believe in a God who will punish, much less punish in a place and under circumstances so terrible, as are portrayed in the scriptural pictures of hell.

All of his meanings and rationalizations notwithstanding, it is still the teaching of the Word of God. Let us not fall prey to such subjective and heretical thinking, for in doing so we may very well experience the reality of God’s place of punishment for the wicked – first-hand!

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 19, pp. 577, 598-599
October 3, 1991