Q: This biblical verse (Matthew 24:35) troubles me: "Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away." If heaven, passes away, what happens to souls there? Thank you! -- T
A: Well, let us look more deeply into the verse that gives you such trouble. The first meaning is that Heaven and Earth do not mean Heaven plus Earth. Heaven and earth are a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which the parts stand for the whole. They mean one thing and not two things. That one thing they mean is the physical universe. So what Matthew is trying to convey is the idea that God existed before the physical universe came into being and God will exist after the universe, or our small part of it, blows up in some cosmic Big Bang. The idea that God is not a part of the physical universe but rather is the creator of that physical universe is fundamental to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Eastern religions like Hinduism consider the gods to be a part of the universe, with each god representing some aspect of the universe in his or her essence and mission.
Because Jesus is God, according to Christian belief, the New Testament in John 17:24 addresses the theological problem that Jesus appeared in the material world and thus might not be eternal, "For thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world."
The Hebrew Bible is the foundation for Matthew's and John's beliefs in the eternity of God. In Psalm 90:2 we learn, "Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God." In Job 36:26 we learn, "Behold, God is great, and we know him not, neither can the number of his years be searched out."
There is nothing to worry about as far as the abode of souls is concerned. Our souls are immaterial. They are not part of the physical universe because they are a part of God who is not a part of the physical universe. After death, our souls are safe with God.
This verse in Matthew is a perfect example of the belief of all the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) that God is eternal. The existence of an eternal God who is not a part of the physical universe and who predates and postdates our present universe means that God does not depend upon the world. The world depends upon God.
This belief prohibits the use of magic or any other superstition that holds out the promise of manipulating God. God is beyond all natural forces and independent of them the way a potter is independent from the pot that he or she has made. This belief in an eternal, immaterial God also prevents idolatry. One cannot worship anything in the physical universe and imagine that one is worshipping God.
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This idea of an eternal God outside of nature who yet created nature is conveyed in the first verse of the Bible. In Hebrew the verse that is translated "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," should actually be translated, "In the beginning of God's creating of this heaven and this earth." Such a translation is not only more accurate to the original Hebrew text, but it also conveys the meaning of an eternal, immaterial God. It says, in effect, that this universe of ours is just one of many universes that God has created. We are just the most recent experiment in God's eternal nature.
This is why God is forever.
Although the religions of the East are different in their beliefs about God's independence from the universe, they do have a deep and profound reverence for a length of time that while not eternity, is very close. Hindus and Buddhists have a Sanskrit word, kalpa. They teach that a bird comes once in a hundred years and brushes loose a small pebble from the side of a great mountain. A kalpa is the length of time it will take for the bird to grind down the entire mountain. To my mind, that is definitely eternity.
A bit of Bible humor. One of my favorite bits from comedian Don Novello, who played Father Guido Sarducci, the fictional reporter for the Vatican newspaper on "Saturday Night Live," was his question about why we use the words "and ever" in the phrase "forever and ever" to refer to eternity. He mused, "I think forever just about covers it." I agree. I think forever just about covers it, and forever is precisely the length of time our souls will have to enjoy the splendor and love of God.
(Send ALL QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Rabbi Gellman is the author of several books, including "Religion for Dummies," co-written with Fr. Tom Hartman.)(c) 2018 THE GOD SQUAD DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.