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Heaven, hell, and what comes in between?

  • Timon 

… that was the question from an AmaZioni student in a ZEBS class the other day. A lively discussion began. Why? The question touched on a topic that is very important in the culture of many AmaZioni: the deceased ancestors. In most Western cultures, the issue of dying and death is often ticked off quickly. It’s about the here and now. But in the Xhosa culture, the dead literally “live on”.

The role of the Ancestors

As in many African cultures, the deceased ancestors also play an important role in the Xhosa culture. Certain rituals before and after the funeral are supposed to ensure that the deceased enters the invisible world of the ancestral spirits. If the rites are not carried out, the deceased “haunts” without a home and there may be dreadful consequences for the bereaved.

Traditionally, heaven and hell don’t seem to play an important role. But the invisible world as such is very important, especially because the ancestral spirits are located there. This is why many traditionally-minded Xhosa families have a kind of shrine or pole (Xhantsi) at their home where they come into contact with their ancestors. The ancestors give guidance and direction in important life questions. They ensure that family traditions are carried on. They bring blessings or curses depending on how well the descendants appreciate them and how well they adhere to the traditions. That is why they often “challenge” their living offspring to make certain animal sacrifices or to perform rituals to get things “right” again.

Do the dead really speak?

Time and again it is reported that people had real encounters with their ancestors in the form of dreams or appearances in everyday life. Many of these encounters cannot be denied because there is no natural explanation for them.1 The Bible makes it clear that there should be no contact between the living and the dead (Deut 18,:0-11; Lk 16:26).. But how can these encounters be explained? From a biblical point of view, it is quite possible that demons can simulate the voices or shapes of humans (2 Cor 11:14-15; Rev 16:13).2

It is not surprising then that many AmaZioni suffer from the ancestral cult and are bound to the dark forces that lie behind it. On the other hand, many AmaZioni have already radically turned away from it and found freedom in Jesus. Yet similar to Islam, it often means shame and persecution within their own families. There are also such cases here among the ZEBS students. Pray that they will have the courage to follow Jesus faithfully without compromise and to live in love and wisdom in their families.

The lesson learned

On the one hand, one must clearly reject the rites and customs that offer room for Satan powers. But on the other hand, people live with a strong awareness of the invisible world. It reminds us how important it is to become aware of how the invisible world affects the visible (2 Kings 6: 15-17; Eph 6:12-18). This should not lead us to conspiracy theories, but instead to a life of prayer, a view of the real need of people and the recognition that he who lives in us is stronger than he who is in the world (1 Jn 4,4)!

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  1. O’Donovan, W. 1997. Biblical Christianity in African Perspective
  2. O’Donovan, W. 1997. Biblical Christianity in African Perspective
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