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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Sheol, the place of the dead

The question of what sort of place “Sheol” is and who goes there often gets brought up when hell is being discussed. Alex Jordan, for example, made this comment a few days back:

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 arguments for the existence of hell

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 on the wrath of God and the existence of hell

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.

Who else has argued that Gehenna is a place of historical judgment? I see one hand hesitantly raised

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.

Can anyone recommend a seminary that embraces narrative theology?

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?

Should the church be committed to the mission of Jesus?

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?

Satan, The rise and fall of

Do I believe in Satan? To be honest, on a good day, I’m not sure I do. I suspect that this arch hypostasis of evil is just a bit too much of a stretch for my largely rationalist view of the world. Should I be concerned about this? A narrative appraisal of Satan’s function in the New Testament suggests perhaps not. We naturally want to ask questions about the ontology and metaphysics of Satan. Does he really exist? How does he fit into a modern-theistic worldview? But in the New Testament Satan is a dramatic figure, a character in a story, who plays a quite specific, and in the end limited, role in the unfolding crisis.

The story is more than gospel: a response to Leslie Leyland Fields

In an article in the latest edition of Christianity Today (“The Gospel Is More Than a Story: Rethinking Narrative and Testimony”) Leslie Fields examines the current preference expressed by many evangelicals for narrative over doctrine. She offers by way of evidence a statement made by Derek Flood in a Huffington Post article: “Christian faith is not primarily about arguing over right beliefs and doctrines, it is about letting the story of God’s grace become our story and shape our lives.” Evangelicals are falling over each other these days in their enthusiasm to insert their beliefs into the wide open space between once-upon-a-time and happy-ever-after. Indeed we are.

The kingdom of heaven and the men of violence

While we’re on the subject of the kingdom of God, what are we to make of Jesus’ enigmatic saying about violent men taking the kingdom by force (Matt. 11:12)? The only way to make sense of it, I would suggest, is to read carefully Jesus’ reaction to the visit from the disciples of John the Baptist recounted in Matthew 11:2-19. Such an approach will reinforce my argument that the coming of the kingdom of God is understood in the Gospels as an imminent political event that will transform the historical condition of Israel. Preachers take note.

The kingdom of God is in the midst of you. Or is it?

The coming of the kingdom of God in the Synoptic Gospels is, in my view, entirely a cataclysmic future public event. This event would not happen very soon, from Jesus’ point of view, but some of his followers would certainly live to witness it. It is closely linked, in Jesus’ apocalyptic story-telling, with the coming of the Son of Man. I am not trying to push any particular theological position here. I am recommending a historical judgment: this language, in this context, under these conditions, could only have pointed to decisive political events within a realistic historical timeframe, in a foreseeable future.

But what about Jesus’ response to the Pharisees in Luke 17:21: “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you”? Doesn’t this mean that Jesus thought that the kingdom was both present and future, both now and not yet?

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