Monday, September 18, 2006

Reply to a Skeptic: Elijah's Extraordinary Departure From Earth and Relation to John the Baptist

By Dave Armstrong (9-18-06)

The atheist "paul" over at the Debunking Christianity blog has written a piece entitled, "A few questions about Elijah." This is my reply. His words will be in blue.

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I was thinking about Elijah the other day, and came up with a few questions. Did Elijah ever die?

It would appear (prima facie) not. But we can't say for sure.

If not, why? Since he was a "man just like us" James 5:17, how did he escape the "wages of sin" (i.e., "death")?

This is a good question. I can see three possible answers from a biblical perspective:
1. He actually did die on the way up to heaven. The text is silent on this but doesn't deny it, so it remains a possibility.

2. God could have made an exception to the general rule, since almost all rules admit of exceptions.

3. Elijah was sinless. Catholics believe this occurred with Mary. The non-fallen angels also never sinned, so this is not an impossibility. If Elijah was sinless, he was given the grace by God to be able to withstand the harmful effects of original sin, just as Mary was. The Bible doesn't say one way or the other (this is true of all three possibilities, but they are not ruled out).
#1 is somewhat suspect by analogy, because Enoch was also taken up to heaven (Genesis 5:24). All we know about him from Genesis is that he "walked with God" (5:22,24), implying that he was a particularly righteous man. Sirach 44:16 (from the deuterocanonical book also known as Ecclesiasticus: not accepted as canonical by Protestants) informs us that "he was taken up" (cf. 49:14) and "was an example or repentance to all generations."

Hebrews 11:5 teaches that Enoch "was taken up so that he should not see death . . . he was attested as having pleased God." So here we have a definite statement that he didn't die; this would seem to suggest that Elijah also probably didn't die, based on the similarity of the extraordinary end of each person's sojourn on earth. Catholics have not made it a matter of dogma that Mary died. She may have, or may not have, before being assumed into heaven, as we believe.

By the same analogical evidence, we can surmise that Elijah was a very righteous man. Also, the deuterocanonical passage 1 Maccabees 2:58 reads: "Elijah because of great zeal for the law was taken up into heaven." John the Baptist, of whom Elijah was a prototype (more on that below) was "filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb" (Luke 1:15), thus suggesting a great sanctity.

Furthermore, Elijah is the person used to illustrate the principle of "the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects" (James 5:16-18). The idea is that the more righteous one is, the more powerful his prayer will be. Hence, Elijah's prayer could stop the rain for three-and-a-half years and then cause it to start up again (5:17-18).

How did Elijah come to be John the Baptist (Matt.17:12-13)? Zechariah and Elizabeth were Johns parents, so how did Elijah get into John the Baptists body?

He didn't. Luke 1:17 states that John the Baptist would "go before him [God] in the spirit and power of Elijah." Jesus described him as "Elijah who is to come" (Matt 11:14; cf. Mk 9:11-13) because Hebrew thinking often employed prototypes or types and shadows. It was a way to emphasize a man's characteristics to simply call him the name of another, since the other represented certain thinks in the Hebrew mind. Elijah was a prophet (one of the greatest), and John was the last of the prophets (Matt 11:9-11).

Matthew 17:10-13 is a parallel to Mark 9:11-13, where Jesus refers to John the Baptist as "Elijah." But this passage shows that the disciples understood this prototypical thinking, since it tells us "the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist" (17:13). Moreover, both Elijah and Moses are described as appearing with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3-4). We know that this Elijah returned from heaven is distinguished from John the Baptist (as a person) because even as Jesus and the disciples were coming down the mountain, Jesus referred to Elijah as "already come" and that men "did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands" (Matt 17:12-13).

This (persecution to the death) was true of John (and Jesus) but never of Elijah, so it absolutely proves that Jesus thought John and Elijah were two different men, even though He called John "Elijah" - in prototypical language. It also rules out reincarnation (which is utterly contrary to biblical Christianity anyway) because it shows that Elijah was still alive as a distinct person even after John the Baptist was murdered, whereas in reincarnation, Elijah would have ceased to be when he "moved into" John's body.

Another notable example of this Hebrew prototypical thinking is the David-Messiah-Jesus parallelism. For example, note Isaiah 9:6-7, a famous messianic passage (familiar to anyone who loves Handel's Messiah):

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.

(RSV; cf. Jer 23:5; Lk 1:32)

But Jeremiah 30:8-9 calls the Messiah "David":

"And it shall come to pass in that day, says the LORD of hosts, that I will break the yoke from off their neck, and I will burst their bonds, and strangers shall no more make servants of them. But they shall serve the LORD their God and David their king, whom I will raise up for them."

(cf. Ezek 34:23-24; 37:24-25: "David my servant shall be their prince for ever.")
"Did Elijah ever die?" It's hard to say from a scriptural standpoint. I haven't actually found the verse that says "Elijah died."

Me neither. I don't think it exists.

The bible says Elijah went up into heaven in a whirlwind (II Kings 2:11). But, there were at least fifty from the school of prophets who thought he might have just been relocated (II Kings 2:15-17), however, they were unable to locate Elijah after a three day search. Elijah may have been alive three years later when a letter from him to King Jehoram of Judah shows up (2 Chron. 21:12-15) which would seem to indicate he didn't die.

The notes to my RSV Bible claim that this letter is "a creation of the Chronicler" who used the name of Elijah "to give more point to the rebuke of Jehoram." This would be in line with prototypical Hebrew thinking as well.

On the other hand, Elijah may have written this letter earlier, since he was a prophet he could have forseen what he wrote to King Jehoram and written about it at an earlier date. Perhaps the letter was saved at the school of the prophets and delivered at the appropriate time.

Possible . . .

Jewish tradition still has Elijah alive.

So does Christian Tradition. All the saints are alive, and in fact, are aware of happenings on earth. There is no annihilation. All death means is separation of the soul from the body.

Every Passover Seder has an empty chair waiting for his return to herald the coming Messiah.

The evangelical Christian churches I've been to have Elijah alive also.

Yep; likewise the Catholic and Orthodox churches I've been to . . .

Conservative Christians of a pre-millennial bent believe that all must die because that is "the wages of sin."

They have to explain Elijah and Enoch then.

They think Elijah is going to be one of the two witnesses spoken of in Revelation 11 and will die then.

That's possible. Because he appeared with Moses in the Transfiguration and both ended their earthly lives mysteriously, it is thought by some commentators that these two would also be the "two witnesses." And they represent the Law and the Prophets (see Malachi 4:4-5).

That view does not answer the problem of Jesus indicating that John the Baptist was Elijah.

That is a non-problem to begin with, per my above explanations. Anyone with a concordance and/or an average understanding of the Bible could have discovered that.

If Elijah did indeed die as John the Baptist, to have him reappear as one of the witnesses of Revelation 11 would mean he would have to be reincarnated and die a second time.

Reincarnation is absolutely inconsistent with Jewish and Christian thought. We believe in resurrection. A person can appear again because he is still alive, either in spirit form or as a person with a resurrected, glorified body (just as Jesus did, as the forerunner to the General Resurrection). There is no need for reincarnation, even if the notion made any sense, or could actually occur. You are operating with a faulty understanding of what death means (at least insofar as the Bible defines it).

From a scriptural standpoint, this presents a problem of double jeopardy. The bible indicates in Hebrews 9:27 that "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment."

No problem exists whatsoever.

The amillennialist and preterist believe the requisite for death was worked out with John the Baptist. If the preterists or amillennialists are right, and Elijah lived and died as John the Baptist, there is still the problem of how Elijah got into Johns body. If Elijah had not yet died, where is Elijahs body now? If God did a spirit transfer of some sort, Is Elijah now a zombie somewhere?

No need to posit more and more ridiculous scenarios: your reasoning is based on ignorance of biblical language and Hebrew thinking, as shown above. You're building a "case" based on assumptions which are absurd and untrue. The Transfiguration shows that the two cannot possibly be considered as the same person: one "reincarnated" into another. If you want to play with the Bible only to tear it down and make it look silly and unworthy of anyone's adherence, you need to do a lot more serious study than you have here, lest you end up looking just like what you hoped the Bible and Christians would look like as a result of your "biblical mind games."

If Elijah was John the Baptist, as Jesus indicates in Matthew 17:12-13, and John got beheaded, he would have to become reincarnated in order to be one of the witnesses in Revelation, as the Eastern Orthodox or premies believe. That again raises the double jeopardy issue.

The only issue this raises is how you can get out of Matthew 17:12-13 that Jesus literally thought Elijah was John, since that is the exact passage that absolutely proves otherwise, since Jesus said of this "Elijah" he refers to, that he was persecuted, just as He was soon to be. That wasn't true of Elijah, but it was of John the Baptist. A little knowledge of Hebrew types and shadows would have avoided all of this exegetical silliness.

But invariably (without exception) in dealing with atheist Bible interpretation, I discover the overlooking or utter ignorance of elementary issues and aspects of sensible Bible interpretation. At the same time, the skeptic looks down his nose at the favorite boogeymen, the fundamentalists, when all the latter are doing is the same sort of woodenly literalistic interpretation that the skeptic typically engages in (but without the ubiquitous irrational skepticism and hyper-critical crusading, "anti-Christian" mentality).

At least many fundamentalists can be excused somewhat for ignorance (having a tradition of anti-intellectualism) and more or less blind acceptance of faulty traditions in their own sphere. What is the skeptical atheist or agnostic's excuse (they usually being more educated as a general rule, and thus more culpable for these basic whoppers and foolish mistakes)? The fundamentalist is like a little fish in a big fish tank: not knowing that there is any other world to live in, but the skeptical atheist who argues like a fundamentalist does, is like a big fish in a small tank, who knows that something is wrong, but can't manage to get out of the tank. He has outgrown fundamentalism in some respects, but not in how he interprets the Bible. So he repeats the same mistakes and winds up looking more foolish and silly than any fundamentalist that I know of.

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