Sunday 11 November 2012

Paradise Now? One Dangerous Afterlife Perspective

Here goes. This is going to be my first attempt at bringing in reflections from film into the blog. I confess, The movie I'll talk about is straight out of my Film Studies module. It's called Paradise Now (2005) and its a low-budget American/Palestinian film that explores what's going through the heads of two suicide bombers (Said and Khaled) as they prepare to carry out an attack. The film doesn't hold back from putting this troubling topic centre-stage, which is one of the major reasons why I found it so disturbing. These are our protagonists. And it's easy to forget that they're planning on carrying out mass murder.

Said, Khaled and Jamal in Paradise Now (2005)

As I watched it I couldn't help thinking about the kind of perspective on eternity that it (or its characters) represented. I think its a stellar example of a model of afterlife that's corrupt In both its morality and its time scale. The bombers are heavily motivated - spurred on by their mentor and contact in the organisation (Jamal) - by their Islamic faith and their conviction that God will reward them for what they're doing. Of course, their faith isn't the only possible expression of Islamic beliefs and the film also shows us Muslims who are vehemently opposed to terrorism. Nevertheless, their perspective can seep into our thinking too if we're not careful, even if we're not prepared to blow up buses.

Dodgy Morality

As they prepare to cross into Israel to carry out the bombing one of the friends asks, "Are we doing the right thing?". The other replies, "Of course we are. In one hour we'll be heroes with God in heaven." There's this attitude amongst the whole group supporting the bomb attack that attacks are legitimate because, once you're dead, what have you got to lose? They're clearly wildly incorrect in thinking that God supports their plans. God's not OK with mass murder, even for the politically oppressed. But, beyond that, is it easier to sympathise with the view that if you recklessly go ahead with something just before you die then God's going to turn a blind eye? I don't think so. There are great promises of paradise in the Bible, like 2 Peter 1:11, which says that we "will be given a very great welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ". But that's not a blank cheque. Peter's just listed a load of things (which my homegroup happen to be studying right now) that should be in our lives if we expect to receive that welcome. Terrorism's not on the list. In short, Jesus offers us abundant grace for our past but how we live now determines what our eternal future looks like. As Romans 14:12 says, "Each of us will have to answer to God".

Dodgy Eschatology (or 'way of looking at the end')

The bombers also have a slanted perspective (suggested in the film's title) on when this paradise is going to come about. Again on the way to Israel, the characters have this conversation:

SAID: What happens afterwards?
JAMAL: Two angels will pick you up.
SAID: Are you sure?
JAMAL: Absolutely. You'll see.

It couldn't be any clearer that these suicide bombers are expected to be rewarded in heaven straight after they die. They're told, "After you ascend into heaven, we'll take care of everything here." It's all about 'going to heaven when you die'. This is actually the expression of what's also a Christian misnomer, one that's prevalent in many Sunday school lessons and a reasonable amount of theology. It's the perspective that heaven's a reward denied in this lifetime but served up on death to departed souls, like pudding neatly separated from the main course but eaten simultaneously. I think it's actually the exact opposite. Heaven is near and now, available on earth for anyone open to experience it - but its fullness won't come until Jesus' return as King. The 'going to heaven' scenario either curtly ignores God's judgement or marginalises it as a sort of confirmation (since heaven and hell are already in effect). Yet Jesus repeatedly taught that He would return to resurrect and carry out final judgement (Matthew 25:31-46, Mark 13:26-27, John 5:27-29 are just a few examples). It's only then that heaven will come in its fullness as God's kingdom takes control. Heaven's available now (as we meet God here on earth), but paradise is later.

This might radically upset your perspective on heaven. You might disagree (again, please feel free to comment and say so!). You might find it hard to accept that loved ones aren't in paradise right now. And I'm sorry if that's the case. But I hope that as you continue to read the Scriptures, and particularly what Jesus says in the Gospels, that you can at least see where I'm coming from. After all, I'm not saying that it's paradise never.

Paradise Now?

Paradise Now's title brings a story to mind that might refute this, of another man many centuries earlier facing death in the same part of the world. A criminal is being crucified beside Jesus. He says, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom". Jesus replies, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42-43). Surely this is paradise now? This isn't an easy passage to interpret given my insistence that heaven only comes after Judgement Day. My own take on it is that Jesus, struggling to breathe during His execution, wasn't about to launch into a full explanation of kingdom eschatology (what'll happen at the end). He told the criminal what he needed to hear - that Jesus wasn't going to forget him and that death wasn't the end of the story. For him, as for everyone who gives heaven a chance to invade their now, paradise is later - but it's definitely coming.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Mark of Blame?

The cinematic equivalent of the Cain and Abel story. Credit: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003, New Line Cinema)

Sometimes it's the small things that can make all the difference - the fine details in a familiar story that can change your understanding of the whole narrative. There are (at least) two ways of interpreting the events of Genesis 4. One is how I used to understand the story and one's how I understand it now.

Here's the first.

The story goes like this. Cain and Abel are two brothers. Cain develops a grudge against Abel and, despite God's warning, murders him. God confronts Cain over his brother's death and curses him with difficult agricultural work. Cain protests and God then gives Cain a mark to distinguish him.

Interpretation 1 sees this as a blame game. The mark is God's way of reminding Cain of his mistake. Interpretation 1 paraphrases God like this: "Look at what you've done. I'm going to give you this mark so you'll never forget your sin. Every time you look in the mirror you're going to reminded of how you screwed up. Never forget that I'm angry with you."

Here's the second.

It's true enough that God initially curses Cain insofar as his farming work is going to be more difficult from this point on. God undeniably lets Cain know that his sin is not OK. But the only one who actually condemns Cain in the passage is...Cain. Look at what he says:
Then Cain said to the LORD, 'This punishment is more than I can stand! Today you have forced me to stop working the ground, and now I must hide from you. I must wander around on the earth, and anyone who meets me can kill me.'
Genesis 4:13-14 

This ties into my previous post. Just because Cain says these things doesn't mean that we have to agree with him. It doesn't mean that God agrees with him. God says that Cain will wander the earth. But notice that Cain is the one who signs his own death warrant.

So interpretation 2 sees Cain's mark as God's sign of resolute acceptance. It's a tag of ownership. It's God saying the following (and, obviously, this too is a paraphrase): "I know you screwed up. I know that what you did was wrong. But don't ever for a second think that you're beyond redemption. You're more valuable than your mistakes. I'm going to put this mark on you as a sign that you're mine. Every time you look in the mirror, know that you're precious in my sight. And anyone who messes with you is going to have to deal with me first."

A powerful repercussion of this interpretation is that Cain's mark functions similarly to the Holy Spirit - a "mark of ownership", a sign that we are absolutely God's (Ephesians 1:13-14). That's how God treats us. He doesn't sweep our sin under the carpet as if it wasn't significant. He doesn't hold back from telling us that our sin is important. But, despite all our shortcomings, He still cherishes and dignifies us. He puts His mark of ownership on us to stop us defining ourselves by our mistakes. God's mark tells us that we're His redeemed children, no matter what our past looks like.