I have collected together most of the stuff that I have posted on this site on the subject of “hell” and life after death in a new Kindle book called Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective . Much of it was prompted by the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived . Being a collection of blog posts the book is academically lightweight, far from comprehensive, and suffers from many of the characteristic vices of the medium. Maybe that’s all to the good. In any case, I think it puts forward a pretty coherent case for reading the texts as interpretations of historical outcomes rather than as data for general theories about a personal afterlife. I think this approach solves the problem of hell in a way that remains profoundly true to the evangelical thrust of the New Testament.
This is the second of two questions about annihilationism. The first had to do with the origins of the argument that the “hell” language in the New Testament refers not to suffering after death but to historical events interpreted as divine judgment, which could be quite unpleasant enough enough. This second question raises a more specific issue: Is it necessary to believe that the unrighteous are also raised at the end, only to be destroyed again?
A couple of questions were sent to me recently regarding my view on “hell”. I have blogged far more than I ever intended to on the subject over the last year, mainly because Rob Bell’s Love Wins put the Emergent cat among the excitable Reformed pigeons. I take a rather distinctive line on the matter. I think that, for the most part, when the New Testament speaks of wrath or judgment or gehenna, it speaks prophetically of foreseeable historical events, in particular the devastating war between Israel and Rome and—less distinctly—the overthrow of the whole system of classical paganism. The doctrine of “hell” as we know it developed as a later misreading of New Testament apocalyptic, as European metaphysics won out over Jewish narrative. The final judgment on sin is destruction and death—the destruction of societies or civilizations, on the one hand; the death of individuals, on the other. The final judgment on sinful humanity is the lake of fire, which is the “second death” (Rev. 21:8).
This argument is close to the standard alternative to the “eternal conscious torment” view of “hell”, annihilationism, but it is not exactly the same, which brings us to the two questions. The first, which I will address today, has to do with sources. The second, which I will keep for tomorrow, concerns the resurrection of the unrighteous.
I listened to a gospel sermon at a church in one of the labour camps yesterday by a pastor I greatly respect. He retold the story of the prodigal son, with an acceptable measure of poetic licence, along the way developing his basic evangelistic paradigm. Even with the handicap of translation, it was a model of good narrative preaching—fast-paced, engaging, witty, but with a clear message. I say this because in the unlikely event of him reading this post, I don’t want him to take what I say personally. The point I want to make is a much more general one about how we use—and misuse—scripture.
According to the paradigm, the older son represents a legalistic, moralistic or religious attitude. He has no need for the father’s mercy; he will earn his own salvation by working hard, keeping the rules. The younger son rebels against the rules and chooses his own way, with disastrous consequences. But in the end he comes to his senses and returns home to seek forgiveness. When his father comes running out to meet him, the younger son learns that we are saved not by works—certainly not by works of religion—but by grace alone (cf. Eph. 2:8-9). We can do nothing to merit eternal life; all we can do is receive our inheritance as a gift.
The participants in any specific execution played scripted roles within this collective fable of Roman power. Specifically, the officers overseeing the execution played the part of Caesar’s legions, while the victim represented the larger social group of which he was a member. Applied to the case at hand, every Jewish cross was planted in a master commemorative narrative that both rationalized Roman power and discouraged future attempts at innovation.
Part of Christian Smith’s argument against the “biblicist” approach to the reading of scripture is that the Bible simply cannot be reduced to a single layer of meaning. The Bible is multivocal; it speaks “to different listeners in different voices that appear to say different things”; it confronts the reader with “semantic indeterminacy” (loc. 1096 in the Kindle version of The Bible Made Impossible).
It’s not altogether clear to what extent he regards the indeterminacy as intrinsic to the biblical text or a problem generated in the course of interpretation (Smith’s “pervasive interpretive pluralism”). If Protestants and Catholics disagree over the meaning of Jesus’ statement, “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18), are we to conclude that the text has more than one meaning or that Catholics and Protestants see things differently?
In these post-Christendom, post-imperial, post-colonial, anti-capitalist times it is unsurprising that we are uncomfortable with the notion that the conversion of the Roman empire under Constantine was somehow an appropriate fulfilment of New Testament expectations regarding the reign of God.
For mainstream evangelicalism, of course, the rise and fall of empires is no more than a distraction from the central kingdom task of saving souls. Someone had to put Jesus to death, so it might as well have been the Romans. But towards the other end of the political-religious spectrum many are convinced that the apostles were anti-imperial demagogues before their time—well, at least, covert anti-imperial demagogues.
A concluding chapter to a collection of essays on the New Testament and empire, however, deftly thrusts a stick into the spokes of the fast-peddling scholarly enthusiasm for anti-imperialist re-readings.
In very broad brush strokes my overarching thesis—if you like—expounded here and in my books, is this:
- that the main narrative trajectory of the New Testament lands at God’s judgment of the world of Greek-Roman paganism and the inauguration of a new age in which Christ is confessed as Lord by the nations;
- that that new age of European Christendom is now being brought to an end by the combined forces of rationalism and pluralism, much as the age of second temple Judaism was brought to an end by the forces of empire;
- that one of the moves that the church has to make in response to the current crisis is to recover a sense of the historical dynamic of the New Testament in relation to Israel’s story and to reconsider how that dynamic gives impetus to the church today.
I suggested in my post on N.T. Wright’s inaugural lecture at St Andrews that the lines of Jewish narrative converge not at the end of history but “on the moment of the concrete victory of Israel’s God over the powers of paganism, which historically speaking is the conversion of the empire”. Not surprisingly this provoked some bemusement.
Roger Haydon Mitchell asks the inevitable question:
Surely this convergence was at best a repeat of Israel’s tendency to missalign with empire? Didn’t it import the deep structure of paganism into ecclesiology and theology and produce the toxic theocracy of Christendom? Isn’t Wright’s point precisely that the true trajectory of the Old Testament prophets is the counterpolitical positioning of the people of God as a radical theocracy in confrontation with empire?
In his recent inaugural lecture at the University of St Andrews Tom Wright talks about his leading concerns about the state of Gospel studies. In particular, despite generations of redaction criticism and narrative criticism, he remains unconvinced that that “the main message of the gospels has been grasped”. What in his view is the main message that has not been grasped?
My proposal about the gospels is that they all, in their rather different ways, tell the story of Jesus of Nazareth as the story of how God became king. They all, in other words, announce the launch of a ‘theocracy’.
The first statement will have come as no surprise to his audience. The second may have raised a few eyebrows. “Theocracy” is a bad word these days. Wright argues that it’s only what “kingdom of God” means—so the word is defused and rendered safely rhetorical. But I’m inclined to think that “theocracy”—now you come to mention it—is actually a much more pertinent term for our understanding of New Testament theology than Wright may be prepared to allow.