A question about annihilationism

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.

Misinterpreting Jesus for the sake of the gospel: parables of a prodigal son

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.

Polysemy, pre-eminence, and patriarchy in Paul

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?

What did the early church fathers think of empire?

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.

The New Testament, the end of theology, and the recovery of dialogue

In very broad brush strokes my overarching thesis—if you like—expounded here and in my books, is this:

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. 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.

Empire and the completion of Israel's story

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?

Why N.T. Wright's narrative of Jesus is not narrative enough (reflections on the inaugural lecture)

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.

Is the good news necessarily good?

Peter G. cites this passage in a comment here as evidence that euangelion does not necessarily signify good news. The message of the angel to the pagan world, to the nations and peoples ruled by Rome, is that the hour of God’s judgment on the whole idolatrous, unjust, immoral system is approaching. They are called to worship instead the one true creator God, not the ineffectual works of human hands. A second angel announces the fall of “Babylon the great”—that is, Rome, the power that has corrupted the world (14:8). A third angel adds that those who worship the beast and its image, etc., will also “drink the wine of God’s wrath” (14:9-11).

Scot McKnight, Gospel Coalition, and how many "gospels" do we really need?

There is an interesting critique of Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel on the Gospel Coalition site, by Luke Stamps, called “What God Has Joined Together: The Story and Salvation Gospel”. It’s worth reading, not least because it’s a good example of a friendly and constructive response from the more traditional evangelical-Reformed side of the argument.

The central issue is whether the category “gospel” includes the “plan of salvation”. Scot’s argument essentially is that the New Testament “gospel” is a proclamation about the lordship of Jesus at the culmination of Israel’s story. Personal salvation is what happens when people hear that proclamation and respond to it in faith, repenting of their sin and accepting the lordship of Jesus over their lives. Stamps argues that while the emphasis on the narrative framework is a ‘helpful corrective to some popular “de-storied” presentations of the gospel’, the dichotomy that Scott insists on between Israel’s story and the offer of personal salvation “doesn’t appear to do justice to the ways in which Israel’s expectations of the kingdom are transformed by Christ and his apostles”.

The church and social protest: counting the cost

Now that St Paul’s has belatedly decided that it has enough common ground with the Occupy London protesters to work with them rather than against them, the conversation naturally turns to the question of what sort of economic policy, etc., the church might propose in the place of rampant acquisitive capitalism.

The announcement of a willingness to engage in constructive dialogue already contained details of a new initiative led by the former investment banker Ken Costa aimed at “reconnecting the financial with the ethical”.

That sounds safe and probably ineffectual enough (read Jonathan Bartley’s concerns), but once the excitement provoked by the turnaround has worn off, people will begin to remark on the fact that the church generally, from St Paul’s downwards, does not always set a very good example of material restraint. What does the church have to do to be seen to be putting its money where its mouth is? How socially radical does the church have to be if its prophetic stance is to carry weight and integrity?


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