Dan Phillips’ book The World-Tilting Gospel is not a book I would normally read, let alone review. But I like the Pyromaniacs, the book can for now be downloaded free for the Kindle, and it offers another opportunity to try to explain why I think the traditional modern evangelical or Reformed gospel, no matter how cogently presented, gives us a very limited and incomplete understanding of what is going on in scripture.
A couple of comments relating to the reference to “Tartarus” in 2 Peter 2:4…
Responding to some of the recent posts on hell Steven Opp emailed me with a few questions. The first has to do with the motivational value of a doctrine of annihilation. If the Gehenna passages in the New Testament actually refer to temporal judgment on Israel as part of a narrative of historical crisis, and if at the personal level the final judgment on human sinfulness is death and not eternal conscious punishment, what reason do people have for believing or behaving?
I argued recently that the New Testament conceives of any life after death in terms of the resurrection of the body and does not entertain the notion that some immaterial part of a person—the “soul”—survives the destruction of the body to be either rewarded in heaven or punished in hell. See “Why you won’t go to heaven when you die“ and “Resurrection from the dead”. In many ways this feels like a very un-Christian argument—and in a sense it is, because many layers of theological development need to be stripped away before we are able to discern the shape of the original Jewish conceptuality. So not surprisingly a number of biblical passages have been cited as evidence for a conscious intermediate state between death and resurrection. One of the passages is the curious story of Saul’s visit to the “medium of Endor” and his encounter with the dead Samuel (1 Sam. 28:3-24).
I keep making the point that the New Testament is a situated theological engagement with the historical narrative of the people of God. As such it is a work both of memory and of imagination: it addresses the present in the light of what has happened and what will happen.
It seems a good idea, therefore, to set out a rough outline of the relevant period—basically, in my view, the period from the decree of Cyrus permitting the Jews to return to Jerusalem to Constantine’s Edict of Milan, by which Christianity was legalized. Modern evangelicalism has a very poor sense of history. We have somehow persuaded ourselves that the New Testament can be read perfectly well in more or less complete isolation from the historical substrate which it presupposes at every point. That is because we are only really interested in theology. I want to challenge that bias. What follows is very incomplete and is not very exciting in itself—I’ve made little attempt to work the Jesus story into it. But it should not be read merely as optional background material. It shares the same narrative foreground space as the New Testament itself.
Ben Witherington has taken the trouble to post a couple of comments (here and here) in response to my critique of his argument about Gehenna in his book Revelation and the End Times. He makes four points in defence of his more or less traditional understanding of geenna in the Gospels as a reference to a place of everlasting punishment after death. I am delighted that he has taken the trouble to address the “substantive points” that I raised—basically a restatement of my view that, like Jeremiah before him, Jesus invoked the Valley of Hinnom as a metonymy for judgment on Jerusalem. But I remain unconvinced.
The “good news” in the New Testament is really the telling of the whole story, from Jesus’ initial proclamation to Israel through to judgment on the pagan world. But it has been broken down into its component parts. This observation correlates rather well with Scot McKnight’s argument that ‘ “creed” and “gospel” are intimately connected, so intimately one can say the creed is the gospel’ ( The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited , 63), though the narrative details would come out rather differently. The creedal narrative that emerges from the New Testament is a string of good news items.
In his new book The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited Scot McKnight starts out by arguing that the “gospel” has to be distinguished from the “plan of salvation” that lies at the heart of modern evangelical theology and preaching. The gospel is not a formula for personal salvation; rather it belongs to “the Story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s Story” (44). Only once we get this difference sorted out will it become possible to ‘develop a “salvation culture” that finds its only true home in a “gospel culture”. The urgency of this correction lies in the fact that only a “gospel culture”, in Scot’s view, can inform and sustain discipleship.
The premise of this site is that evangelical theology is in transition and that this transition is driven by some really quite deep tectonic shifts in the way that the evangelical community understands its biblical origins. In simple terms, it amounts to a clash between two paradigms—one that prioritizes the theological interests and commitments of the interpreting community, the other that prioritizes the historical situatedness of the texts. Ben Witherington’s discussion of Jesus’ teaching about “Gehenna” in his little book Revelation and the End Times provides a good illustration of how these two paradigms may quietly bump into each other without any one noticing—including, it would seem, the author. In my view these collisions are not innocuous: they are symptomatic of the deeper shift that is taking place, they are evidence of methodological confusion, they should be exposed, and they should be resolved in favour of the historical reading.
I have been meaning for some time to respond to some comments made by Jason Clark to the effect that the emerging church lacks a coherent ecclesiology. He was commenting on a piece I wrote four years ago asking: What does the emerging church stand for?
Jason acknowledges that there have been some important ecclesial “turns”—the search for a more solid experience of church in Anglicanism, for example, or the development of “missional communities”. But he feels, nevertheless, that ecclesiology has rather lost out to mission. The emerging church movement has mapped the postmodern socio-cultural landscape in considerable detail but has not attempted to define the form of the body of Christ in this brave new world with anything like the same enthusiasm.