Ask yourself: What interest does your pastor have in the New Testament texts? What does he or she want to do with them? What does he or she need to do with them? Or if you yourself are a pastor or minister or vicar, what interest do you have professionally in the New Testament? Whom do you need to impress or persuade or instruct or keep quiet? And then ask yourself: Is it likely that your or your pastor’s interest in the New Testament matches the interest that the authors of the New Testament had in the story that they were telling? Is it likely that we have the same perspectives or presuppositions or preoccupations or pressures? No, of course not. We use the Bible in our churches and in our personal devotional life today in a manner and to an end for which as a historical text it was not designed.
I guess many people will know already that Hellbound the Movie is set for release in the US on September 21st. Kevin Miller asked me last year if I’d do an interview for it, but I was in Dubai and he was in the US, and it never happened. That was a missed opportunity. I’m now back in London, and hopefully I will get a chance to see the film here at some point.
The seemingly affable, well-read, articulate and entertaining Douglas Wilson has taken the trouble to respond in some detail to my critique of his argument about Hellenistic influence on the supposed language of “hell” in the New Testament, so I will return the favour. He who blinks first loses, whatever the exegetical rights and wrongs of the matter.
Douglas Wilson—a genial fellow by appearances, who calls himself an “evangelical, postmill, Calvinist, Reformed, and Presbyterian, pretty much in that order”—complains about the “doctrinal mischief” that is being caused by the ‘use of “Hebraic narrative” to deny the doctrine of Hell’. Daniel pointed this out and I can’t just let it slip by.
I believe there are warnings about hell in the Old Testament. Sheol is not a neutral place, but the place where the wicked are sent. The warnings about Sheol would not be warnings if Sheol was simply a neutral place where all dead souls go.
I’ve probably argued before that Sheol is merely the place of the dead, but having looked through the Old Testament texts again, I think that Alex may have half a point. Here I have roughly sorted much of the Old Testament data under what seem to me to be the most useful headings and then added a summary definition. My suggestion, briefly, is that while Sheol is in principle the place of the dead, the imagery of going down to Sheol carries the particular connotation of an unfortunate, wretched or god-forsaken death.
Tim Challies’ final post on “The Holiness of God and the Existence of Hell” is a bit of a let-down. I was rather hoping that he would examine the biblical evidence for his doctrine of eternal conscious torment. I thought he might have considered how words like “wrath” and “Gehenna” and “Hades” are actually used in scripture—rather than in his particular modern-Reformed tradition. I was looking forward to seeing how he would account for the supposed shift from temporal punishment in the Old Testament to eternal punishment in the New Testament. Instead he defends the doctrine by way of another piece of non-biblical rationalist metaphysics.
Tim Challies thinks that one of the most important questions that as Christians we have to ask ourselves today is “Does hell exist?” I also think that this is an important question, one that, in my view, highlights a major flaw in the way most modern Christians understand the Bible, which is why I keep hammering at it. But I am one of those who think that Tim’s “hell”—a “place of eternal, conscious punishment, a real place where real people will go for real time and face the real wrath of a real God”—does not exist. That is, at least, I do not think that this doctrine can be found in the Bible.
I have argued in The Coming of the Son of Man (91-94) and frequently on this blog that in Jesus’ teaching the Greek word geenna, which is usually erroneously translated “hell”, signifies not a general “place” of punishment of sinners after death but divine punishment of Jerusalem by means of military invasion.
The argument is quite straightforward: Jesus believed that in the absence of national repentance his people faced the destruction of war (cf. Matt. 22:7; Lk. 21:20); Jeremiah warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem that because of the evil that they had done in the sight of the Lord they would fall by the sword when the Babylonians invaded, and the bodies of the dead would be thrown into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom (Jer. 7:32-34; 19:10-11); Josephus later describes how during the Roman siege the Jews were compelled to throw the dead over the walls of the city into the surrounding valleys for lack of space to bury them (Jos. War 5.12.3); so it seems highly likely that Jesus intended to make the same point. I think the argument is exegetically sound and makes a lot of sense as part of a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament.
Mitchell Powell, however, asks a pertinent question: “who is the earliest recorded reader of the New Testament you know of to advocate such a view?” Well, I have to say that to the best of my knowledge it appears to be very much a minority position.
I have had a couple of questions from someone which I’m struggling to answer. He grew up and still lives in Texas, has a “hyper-conservative, mainstream” evangelical background, but has recently been exploring new ideas about theology and doctrine, in particular the sort narrative approaches to the interpretation of the New Testament and the construction of beliefs that I’ve advocated here. He is now looking for somewhere to study but is having a hard time finding a school that will “challenge the systematic/neo-Calvinist theology” to which he has been exposed for most of his journey with Jesus. So the first question is: Can anyone recommend a graduate school or seminary that embraces narrative theology?
The last of the eight marks of the “true church” according to Mark Driscoll is that the “church is committed to Jesus’ mission”—and you think, well, that’s a no-brainer. Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. Proclaim the good news that Jesus died for our sins. Baptize people. Incorporate them into churches under “qualified leadership”. Teach them how to think, live and give Christianly. That’s the mission of Jesus. Isn’t it?