I set out a while back to write a general piece on the unbiblical doctrine of “hell” as part of a glossary or lexicon of key concepts but got side-tracked. Since then the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s book has prompted extensive reflection on the matter, and it now seems worth providing a rough summary of the position that I have argued for in a number of recent posts. Unfortunately, it has turned out rather longer than intended, but hopefully it will be the last word on the subject of “hell” for a while.
Roger Olson quotes what seems to me to be a not fully comprehensive definition of the category “postconservative evangelical” from a book by Steven B. Sherman called Revitalizing Theological Epistemology: Holistic Approaches to the Knowledge of God:
Basically, they [postconservative evangelicals] compose a loose coalition of thinkers who are seeking to facilitate a number of ‘beyond’ moves, theologically: beyond the agenda of the modernist/fundamentalist dichotomy toward what they see as a more holistic theology; beyond classical foundationalist epistemology toward alternative concepts of knowledge; beyond concentration on rationalism toward incorporating additional ways of knowing; beyond inerrancy debates and concerns toward an instrumental use of scripture; beyond academy-centered theologizing toward ecclesial and community-oriented thinking; beyond gatekeeping on boundary-setting doctrinalism toward a generous orthodoxy with pietistic emphasis; and finally, beyond what they view as a fixation on the concerns of modernity often motivated by a fear of liberalism, toward a more positive view and selective appropriation of postmodern insights. (9-10)
Three converging thoughts…. First, the lead codices are presumably fake, but they raise an interesting hypothetical question, nevertheless: How different would our understanding of the earliest Christian texts be if we were now to stumble across them for the first time, with a hermeneutical innocence, with a blissful ignorance, our minds unencumbered by millennia of tortuous and often traumatic theological reflection. Secondly, it was suggested in an astute comment attached to my review of Kent Yinger’s book The New Perspective on Paul that “we aren’t going to make much headway into getting the NPP outside of academia until we have a bible translation from the NPP perspective”. Thirdly, during a recent stay at the spectacular Mar Musa Monastery in Syria I came across The Modern Reader’s Bible: The Books of the Bible with Three Books of the Apocrypha, Presented in Modern Literary Form, edited by Richard G. Moulton, first published in 1895.
Scot McKnight has been running a good series of posts working through Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. In the fourth post he considers what Bell has to say about the question put to Jesus by the rich young man (Matt. 19:16; Mk. 10:17) or ruler (Lk. 18:18). Scot thinks that Bell’s eschatology has collapsed here. His view is that the rich man was asking not only about the present world—about how to enter the kingdom life now—but also about a future world. I’m not sure that he is being entirely fair to Bell on this point. It looks to me as though Bell thinks of this kingdom life now as having an ultimate fulfilment in the future—he just puts the emphasis on the present dimension. But I don’t have Bell’s book, and in any case, this is a post simply about the meaning of the phrase zōēn aiōnion. What is this “life of the age” or “life everlasting” or “eternal life”? What is the “future world”—not a phrase that is actually found in the Gospel accounts—that the young man hopes to inherit?
Aaron Darrisaw has asked about Stephen Westerholm’s critique of the New Perspective on Paul. I don’t have access to Westerholm’s book at the moment (I’m sitting in Damascus airport), so I can’t comment directly on his analysis. However, I could have a bit of a stab in the dark at the whole issue. There is a problem with the basic NPP argument about works of the Law as marks of covenant membership, at least with respect to Romans. Dunn, Wright, and others will have addressed the criticisms, but to my mind there is still a structural flaw in the model which makes it vulnerable to attack from the Reformed side.
Evangelical theology—that is, theology as it endeavours to ground the identity and purpose of the church today in the teaching of the New Testament about Jesus—has arrived at a fork in the road. There is the broad road of the Reformed paradigm and its derivatives, which leads to obsolescence, and many there are who walk long it. And there is the narrow, difficult, and still poorly marked path of the New Perspective, which leads to life, and until now only a small number of scholars and an intrepid advance party of enlightened believers have ventured along it. So any attempt to signpost and map at least the early stages of this new way is greatly to be welcomed.
I have been involved in an interesting conversation (much of which is in German) at peregrinatio regarding the meaning of Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 that the believers would be delivered “from the wrath to come”. My view is that this verse has reference to a second eschatological horizon in the New Testament—a complex of events consisting of “the deliverance of the persecuted saints from their enemies…, their public vindication, the overthrow of the pagan imperial aggressor (“Babylon the great”), and the acknowledgment that Israel’s God has made Jesus King of kings and Lord of lords”. This argument was challenged, as is only fair, on the grounds that it does not make sense to say that the Thessalonian Christians were saved from the defeat of Rome by their belief in Jesus. So the question is: What sort of event could legitimately be regarded as the fulfilment of the expectation of the Thessalonian believers that Jesus would deliver them from the coming wrath?
I suggested recently in a discussion about the supposed “hell” passages in the New Testament that Revelation 14:9-11 is arguably the “only passage in the whole of scripture that speaks of an endless torment of ordinary people”. The language and context of the passage, however, make it abundantly clear that what John is describing here is not a place of punishment for the godless after death but—in symbolic terms—the consequences of an impending, this worldly judgment on pagan Rome. This is apparent both from the immediate context (the three angels of 14:6-11) and from its relation to the account of judgment on “Babylon the great” in Revelation 18.
I find this strange. Kenton Sparks (God’s Word in Human Words) is happy to accept the possibility that not all the miracle stories in the Bible actually happened. He also thinks it quite likely that some of the miraculous events related are only partly historical. Since there is no historical evidence for an event as dramatic as the biblical exodus, perhaps we should conclude that it happened, but not quite on the spectacular scale that the Bible suggests. Perhaps “Jesus performed only some of the miracles attributed to him in the Bible, while others are fictional traditions spawned by his genuine miracles” (321).
So far, so reasonable. But then Sparks asks us to step over the hermeneutical line between history and theology. For the historicity of some miraculous events, he thinks, is “nonnegotiable for a fully coherent Christian, being defined as such by creedal orthodoxy and also by Scripture itself” (he has in mind 1 Corinthians 15 and the Nicene Creed).
Some years ago I proposed a thought experiment as a way of grasping something of the strangeness of scripture:
It makes for an interesting thought experiment to consider what would have happened if the early Jewish Christians had been driven from Jerusalem into the desert. What if, under threat of destruction from an invading Roman army, they had concealed their writings in caves and then, like the sectarians of Qumran, had disappeared off the screen of history? And suppose that nineteen hundred years later those writings were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd boy and fell into the hands of a culture that had never known the Christian church. What would that culture make of them? We can hardly subtract the influence of Christianity from modern Western culture, even from modern secular rationalism. But this is only a thought-experiment: how would people react to these writings and their claims about a Jewish teacher called Jesus without all the intellectual baggage of Christian tradition, without the preconception that this a definitive story about God, perhaps without much of an idea about God at all?
Remarkably, it appears that something very close to this may actually have happened….