The traditional view is that when Christians die, they go to heaven. This notion is almost as erroneous as the view that the unsaved will be subjected to an eternity of unalloyed suffering in “hell”. Both beliefs are distortions of the biblical perspective and—I modestly propose—should be erased from the Christian consciousness and the popular imagination as soon as possible. They are wrong in themselves, and they contribute to a serious misunderstanding of the identity and purpose of the church.
Murray Rae’s History and Hermeneutics is “an enquiry into how theology and history may be thought together”. This is an overriding concern of contemporary hermeneutics, and the book is an excellent contribution to the debate. But how you think the problem is to be resolved depends very much on where you start from.
At the end of a detailed account of how the conflict between history and theology has been handled by modern scholarship, Rae comes to N.T. Wright’s insistence that the New Testament must be read both historically and theologically, with both a postmodern self-consciousness regarding the reading process and a recognition that “the rootedness of Christianity in history is not negotiable”. But while it should be possible in principle to balance the seesaw, scholars inevitably have to sit at one end or the other. So whereas “Wright establishes base camp in the fields of historical enquiry”, Rae proposes to “set out from certain theological convictions about the self-revelation of God” (45).
Yesterday I set out what I think are the three main ways in which—at least from a post-evangelical perspective—we may construe the relationship between the core event of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the narrative of history: the a-historical paradigm, the half-historical paradigm, and the consistent historical paradigm. Wesman asked in a comment whether there is really much of a difference, practically speaking, between the second and third options. I think the answer is yes. I see two main benefits to the third approach.
I argued in “The story of how Jesus died for everyone (longer version)” that the account of Jesus’ death in Hebrews highlights both the constraints of the Jewish narrative and the importance of the martyrdom motif for soteriology. I suggested that the “saving significance of Jesus’ death is mediated to the world precisely through the story of the suffering of the early martyr church”. Having reflected on a brief exchange with Peter Wilkinson that ensued, I have sketched here, very roughly, what seem to me the three main ways in which we can locate the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection in history.
I’ve been away for a week. I was at the Christian Associates European staff conference in the charming town of Tapolca in Hungary. I’m writing this on the plane back to Dubai. Basra is somewhere below us.
The theme for the week—”Walking with Giants”—was taken from Hebrews 11. It makes the whole “faith” business sound a little too easy. What came across, as we reflected on the work of church-planting in Europe in the light of this familiar passage, was just how hard, how uncomfortable, the practice of faith can be. What I took away theologically, however, was the thought that Hebrews, from its rather limited perspective, lends strong support to my narrative-historical reading of the New Testament—not least with regard to the significance of Jesus’ death.
Roger Olson is always worth reading. (Well, perhaps not always. No one is always worth reading.) He has just posted an excellent and very sympathetic piece on the emerging church movement. It feels a little bit behind the curve, but that may have more to do with perception than with reality; and in any case, the issues remain pertinent. He concludes with some good comments on the sort of commitments that ought to characterize emerging churches.
I want to take the opportunity provided by a rather vexed comment on my post Tim Keller gets a lot right but gets hell badly wrong to make it clear that my narrative-historical argument about “hell” has nothing to do with liberalism. Ryan kicks off with this rather rash assertion about what liberals do:
A lot of liberals […] will throw out statements like, “You really need to know the context of what he is saying in order to understand it”, or “you really need to read more and educate yourself more to understand it.”
Rob Bell takes the view in Love Wins that in Jesus’ day Gehenna was the “city dump”: “There was a fire there, burning constantly to consume the trash.” It is a metaphor for the terrible consequences of rejecting “the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us”. But in particular, Bell seems to be saying, it was a metaphor for the devastating historical consequences for Israel of “straying from their God-given calling and identity to show the world God’s love”.
He continually warns them how tragic the suffering will be if they actually try to fight Rome with the methods and mind-set of Rome…. Because of this history, it’s important that we don’t take Jesus’s very real and prescient warnings about judgment then out of context, making them about someday, somewhere else. That wasn’t what he was talking about.
I have just received a review copy of a book by Brian Jones called Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It), published by David C. Cook—an excellent title, though I hate to admit it. The book also starts with one of the most gripping opening stories that I have come across. I am usually put off by the banal, formulaic anecdotes that seem to be the mandatory preface to popular Christian books, but this was an exception. Both the gist of the anecdote and the urgent, uncompromising argument of the book can be inferred from this loudly italicized paragraph, in which Jones reproaches himself for not taking hell seriously:
Let me get this straight: You’re willing to run into a burning building to save someone’s life, but non-Christians all around you are going to hell and you don’t believe it, let alone lift a finger to help.
On this blog and in the books I have written in the last few years I have argued for an evangelical self-understanding that expresses its fidelity to scripture by means of what I think is most usefully classified as a narrative-historical hermeneutic. What I mean by this is that the theological content of the Bible, and of the New Testament in particular, in its various forms, is primarily meaningful—and sometimes only meaningful—in the context of the unfolding but circumscribed story of a people that claimed to be heirs of the promises made to Abraham.