Archive for September, 2006

A Breif History of Hell and Satan (Column – pt. 2 of 2)

Saturday, September 23rd, 2006

A look into the shadows: A brief history of hell and Satan
(Part two of two)

By Christian Piatt

(This column originally appeared in the Pueblo Chieftain Newspaper)
Last week, I discussed some of the historical bases for our contemporary understanding of Satan. This week, I’ll consider how hell evolved as part of the Christian faith.

In Old Testament scripture, the resting place for the dead is called Sheol. While some believe this is the same as hell, there are indications to the contrary. In the ancient Jewish tradition, Sheol is a place of rest for both righteous and wicked, with no distinction.

Not everyone is happy about it either.

In the third chapter of Malachi, the prophet recognizes the consternation of faithful Jews who are frustrated that the wicked share the same fate. In Ecclesiastes, the priest Koheleth claims that serving God is vanity. For him, the fact that the righteous are treated the same as the wicked and vice-versa should be a call to eat, drink and be merry.

With respect to any relationship between Satan in the Old Testament and Sheol, there is none.

Approximately 3,500 years ago, the Greek philosophical practice of Hellenism emerged. Hellenism was practiced by the preponderance of Greek culture, valuing logic, knowledge, self-care and moderation. It was influential on Jewish culture, not only in the practices adhered to by the Greeks, but also with regard to their belief in the immortal soul and the afterlife that followed.

Greek culture believed in a place called Hades, which was the resting place for disembodied souls. We see evidence of this in writing as far back as the 8th century B.C., in Homer’s Odyssey. Hades is described as an Underworld, literally located underground; thus we can see the first indication of why we think of hell as such.

Hades includes multiple levels, including Elysium and Tartarus. Elysium, also called Elysian Fields, can be equated with our modern idea of heaven. One difference – although Greek scholars did not always agree on where different levels of Hades were – is that we think of heaven as located above us, whereas the general consensus is that all levels of Hades were part of a larger Underworld.

Tartarus was the level of Hades where unrighteous souls dwelled. This correlates to our modern understanding of hell, where there is wailing, fire and gnashing of teeth as those who displease God pay an eternal price of their disloyalty. For the Jews of the time, this Hellenistic belief was appealing because it helped justify their faithfulness. It gave reasons beyond earthly consequence for following the laws of the Hebrew scripture.

How heavily did Greek culture influence Jewish tradition?  Consider this: whereas the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the original language of the New Testament is Greek. The influence of Greek culture can hardly be over-emphasized.

The writings of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish priest, had tremendous sway over early founders of the Christian church such as Origen, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Josephus, in turn, was particularly interested in Greek culture and ideology, as well as that of the Essenes, an ascetic Jewish network very focused on end-times theology and Jewish mysticism. Joesphus’ noncannonical texts such as The Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities were available to these church fathers, as well as to those who wrote the Gospel texts and other New Testament scripture, which is the source of our contemporary understanding of hell.

Unfortunately this historical perspective doesn’t help make any clearer what the “truth” is about the afterlife. It does, however, tell us something about ourselves, our deepest hopes and fears, and our need for human justice. We may claim to understand God’s ways, truth and justice, but ultimately, it’s all filtered through our dimly illuminated human lens.

God only knows what awaits us.

A Brief History of hell and Satan (part one)

Saturday, September 16th, 2006

We have met the devil, and it is us: A Brief History of Hell and Satan
(part one of two)

By Christian Piatt

This column was originally published in the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper

            While Jonathan Edwards wasn’t the first to preach about hell and condemnation, his ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God’ sermon in 1741 crystallizes the beginning of a modern movement in the church. Edwards employed fear of punishment as a primary means for conversion and doctrinal adherence. Meanwhile, his congregants fainted in the aisles and clung to the pews to avoid being dragged down into the abyss.

We can argue day and night about whether or not fear-based theology is effective, biblically accurate and even necessary. But it’s worthwhile to consider where our contemporary ideas about hell and Satan even come from.

This week, we’ll begin with Satan; we’ll save hell for next week.

Some understand the serpent in the Genesis story to be an incarnation of Satan.  However, Satan first emerges in the Old Testament by name in I Chronicles, and again in Job. His primary role is to demonstrate the weakness of humanity in the face of hardship.

In Job, Satan must receive permission from God to prove the fragility of Job’s faith by submitting him to any number of hardships. Satan’s sentiments about people are summed up in Job 2:4, when he claims, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.”

He shows up again in similar form in II Samuel and Numbers, always as the antagonist. The name Satan actually means ‘adversary.’ While some may interpret this to mean he is God’s adversary, it’s more accurate to define him as humanity’s adversary, always trying to show how unworthy we are of God’s love.

In the Old Testament, Satan has no latitude to operate outside of what God gives him permission to do. Think of him more like a prosecuting attorney, beholden to God’s judiciary authority. He actually works alongside God instead of against God.

Some people also erroneously refer to Satan as Lucifer. The word “Lucifer” means “Light Bearer” in Latin, which was the term used to describe the planet Venus. Some people take Isaiah 14, about Lucifer’s fall, to be a story about Satan being cast out from heaven, as it looks similar to a quote in Luke. However, most biblical scholars and historians contend that this interpretation is taken out of context.

The “Morning Star” actually was a term commonly used to describe the Babylonian Empire. The king of Babylon not only oppressed the Israelites, but he also made a habit of comparing himself to God in the scope of his power. With this understanding, the scripture in Isaiah actually is prophesying the fall of the Babylonian Empire.

As for the use of the names “Lucifer” and “Satan” interchangeably in the Bible, it doesn’t happen. Satan is not described as Lucifer until secular literature such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost adopted the pseudonym. From there, the name seeped its way into our culture until we mistakenly began taking it as scripture.

Satan is much more prevalent – and more powerful – in the New Testament. He possesses people, tempts Christ, and Jesus even claims to see Satan in others, including Peter, his most faithful disciple.

Some maintain that Satan is an embodied figure, while others understand the stories about Satan more metaphorically, representing the perennial weakness of the flesh. There is one thing upon which we can all agree: evil exists.

Theologian Frederick Buechner says that evils exists because, in being allowed to choose whether or not to love God and one another, we also have the choice whether on not to live out our most evil impulses. In this way, Satan lingers in our choices rather than in the shadows, and in the mirror rather than the depths of hell.

Now, that’s scary stuff.

More next week.

Bedroom Bat Debacle

Thursday, September 14th, 2006

No, not bats in the belfry: there is, in fact, a bat in my bedroom.  I was watching TV, minding my own business, when he swooped down over my head. Those little guys are really quiet!

Anyway, I followed him through the house and finally trapped him in the bedroom.  I’m now awaiting animal control to take him to a new home. We’ve had a problem with bats in the area, and with the possibility of rabies, I decided to leave it to the pros.

Fortunately he made his appearance just before I took my nighttime cold medicine, or he could be doing a tapdance on my forehead right now without my knowledge. And doesn’t it figure that we just bought a brand new comforter? If he craps on it and I have anything to do with it, he’ll soon be an ex-bat.

(45 minutes later…)

OK, animal control came, which consisted of a female police officer, no more than five feet tall, armed with…

A coffee can.  Friggin gloves and a coffee can.

I could not feel more emasculated right now.

So she tries several times to trap him in the can and he keeps flipping out, not settling on any surface long enough for her to trap him.  He’s what she called an “aggressive bat,” which would explain why he was dive-bombing me in the living room.

After about half an hour of trying to catch him in the Folgers can, she opts for more aggressive tactics herself.  With the door closed, all I can hear is a couple of thuds, some very high-pitched squealing, a crack against the window, some grunts and, finally, the blessed lid on the coffee can.

The officer comes out in nothing but her T-shirt and pants, having removed her uniform shirt to swat the bat out of the air. She usually carries a net, she explains, but she made this call in her own personal car. The crashing sound was her pager flying off her shirt and into the window.

In the end, the bat was detained for questioning. Although I’m told he won’t undergo interrogation at Guantanamo, he will be euthanized for rabies testing at the health department.  No news is good news, but if tests are positive, it’s rabies shots for everyone, myself, my toddler, and all of the animals included!

I think I’ll go take that cold medicine now.


Book update – “Lost:A Search for Meaning”

Monday, September 11th, 2006

I spoke with the publisher today, and they are very excited about the book.  they are fast-tracking its publication, in fact. The final edits will be done by the end of the week, and I’ll give my final sign-off on their changes next week.  They are pushing to go to print by the end of September, with a release date of late October.


Perhaps one of the best things about this schedule is that, if they stick to it, the book will release during the “Lost” mini-season in October/November. This certainly will help its visibility.

I am both excited and terrified by the buzz at the publisher about my book. They are putting everyhting behind it, and are hopeful it will not only be one of their best sellers, but perhaps that it will be their best selling book ever, according to my editor.  No pressure there! But it is exciting to hear each level of the publishing house getting excited about the project as they read it over.  I’ve already presented a second book proposal to them that will be reviewed later this week, however they may wait to see how this first one does before making another commitment.

I’ll keep everyone posted as I know more.  I should have a cover to share soon, although I have not figured out how to post photos on this site yet.  anyone who knows, help a brother out! Also, once I have a firm release date, I’ll post that ,as well as a date for the interview on  If you don’t already know about this podcast and you’re a Lost fan, check it out. I think they have somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 fans and growing daily. Good stuff.

Finally, I’m working through the details with the publisher to post a FREE chater of the book on my site,  Once that’s sealed, I’ll let everyone know.

Enough for now.
Christian Piatt

If Windows Can Offer Updates, Why Not Jesus? (Column 9-9-06)

Friday, September 8th, 2006

If Windows can offer updates, why not Jesus?

Originally written for the Pueblo Chieftain newspaper

Many of Jesus’ stories are hard to relate to today. I mean, how many of us know what a mustard seed looks like anyway? And in the currency of Jesus’ day, how much was a talent?

So mostly for my own amusement, I decided to offer some new interpretations on a few of Jesus’ most famous parables, as if he were telling them today. We’ll start with the parable of the mustard seed.

“God’s paradise is like a dual boot microprocessor,” Jesus explained. “Even though the processors are really small, once they’re placed in the proper motherboard, they’re able to support many different operating system platforms.”

Umm, yeah. How about the parable of the talents?

“A fund manager for Salomon Smith Barney met with three of his traders. He gave $50,000 to one trader, $20,000 to another, and $10,000 to the new guy. The one with $50,000 created a diversified investment portfolio, with an equal balance of international stocks, small cap equities and commodities. Before long, he doubled his money. The one with $20,000 spread her money across municipal bonds, high-yield T-bills and blue chip performers. She too doubled her holdings. The junior trader started freaking out, worrying that he’d lose his boss’ money, so he stuffed it all under his mattress.

“The manager was impressed with the savvy of the first two traders, and offered to make them partners. He gave the new guy a broom and wished him luck in his new role as senior custodian.”

Maybe the story about new wine in old wineskins will make more sense.

Jesus and his friends go to an office party and they’re enjoying themselves. The religious leaders, all decked out in their fancy priest garb, are observing a religious fast. They’re amazed to see Jesus and his followers munching on wine and cheese.

“What’s your deal?” asks one of the priests. “I thought you were religious and stuff.”

“Evidently you didn’t get the memo,” replied Jesus. “Guys like you take the air out of a room. Loosen up – it’s a party for crying out loud. You can fast later. Look at you! Who wears a cleric’s outfit on Hawaiian Shirt Friday? Would you wear a clown suit to a funeral? You guys are a drag. Have some Havarti and chill out.”

OK, so updating the parables may not be such a good idea. In today’s terms, these stories may come across as trite or even more confusing. The point is that we don’t have to know what mustard seeds or talents are to get the message.

Jesus could have distilled his points down and just told us what we needed to know. He could have made a list of rules, told us how to live to make God happy, and then we wouldn’t have to worry if we were holy enough, pious enough or righteous enough.

The thing is that there already were hundreds of religious rules. The Pharisees gave Jesus a hard time at every turn for breaking one or more of them. Instead of trading one set of rules for another, Jesus told stories. But we still just want to be told what to do so we don’t have to worry about whether or not we are living the right way.

Douglas Adams makes a good point in his book, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. When seekers ask the supercomputer called Deep Thought for the ‘Ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything,’ his answer is ‘Forty-two.’ Deep Thought’s followers are exasperated by this unsatisfying result after 7.5 million years of waiting.

“I think the problem,” replies Deep Thought, “is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

Amen, Deep Thought.

Mother Nature reminds us what’s in our nature to forget

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

Nature reminds us what’s in our nature to forget

I was sitting on the porch of our Northside home last week when a nearly solid sheet of rain advanced quickly toward me. I moved inside where my son, Mattias, napped peacefully as the rain began to pound violently on the rooftop. Only minutes before, the air had been cool and placid, and the sky had given no indication of such a downpour. The clouds, now boiling, turned angrily dark.

I ran quickly around the house, shutting storm windows. Just as the last one closed, the power transformer across the street let out an agonizing groan. Our living room went dark just as I heard a crackling I thought was lightning in the front yard.

I glanced out the front window just in time to see a sixty-year-old ash tree split into three pieces. One limb crashed across the width of the street, blocking the path of anyone foolish enough to be driving. Another fell toward our house, thankfully redirected by another tree as it crashed earthward.

A third tree between the neighbor’s house and ours split just as I received a message from the weather service on my phone. It was the third alert in about a minute’s time, but I had been too absorbed in the moment to notice. The warning indicated that a funnel cloud was forming over north-central Pueblo.

My wife, Amy, ran upstairs to gather our son, who never stirred prior to her waking him. The largest of our trees hung ominously over his room, and with two exposed windows, we decided that disturbing his sleep was more desirable than other alternatives.

We lingered in the basement for half an hour, with the pitch dark broken only by an anemic flashlight whose batteries had not been checked since the last monsoon season. When the storm passed our yard was blanketed by the remains of trees, and the gutters swelled beyond their capacity. We were blocked in our driveway by three limbs immovable by human hands, and we remained without power for just over a day.

The entire experience, as well as the days that followed, reminded me of several things which the relative mundanity of life allow me to neglect.

It reminded me of the awesome power of God’s creation, and my relatively humble place in it.

It reminded me that whatever control we think we have is at best fleeting, if not all together illusory.

Despite inconveniences and minor expenses, I was reminded of those along the Gulf Coast and abroad who still suffer the after-effects of nature’s wrath.

The family from our congregation who brought us dinner as we cleaned the debris from our yard reminded me that there’s something more than a church building that binds us together.

Spontaneous neighborhood gatherings, watching as firefighters and power companies restored order, reminded me that, despite our hectic and self-absorbed culture, we are indeed a community.

The double rainbow that arched overhead following the torrents reminded me that God’s universe is a place of chaos, and at the same time, indescribable beauty.

The complaints from a surly handful of folks about blackouts and road closures less than a day after the storm reminded me that we all could use to place our relative wealth, health and safety in a much broader context.

Incessant why’s and how’s issued from my son about the incident reminded me that, hard as I may try, I will leave this world with many more questions than answers.

We still have some cleanup ahead, but there’s a part of me that hopes we won’t sweep away all of the signs of the experience too quickly. I need to be reminded of what’s important, and how blessed I really am, every once in a while.