Angels from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth…

Response to Douglas Wilson

The seemingly affable, well-read, articulate and entertaining Douglas Wilson has taken the trouble to respond in some detail to my critique of his argument about Hellenistic influence on the supposed language of “hell” in the New Testament, so I will return the favour. He who blinks first loses, whatever the exegetical rights and wrongs of the matter.

Second, I am leery, right up front, of any system of reading Scripture that winds up equating Christian damnation with Buddhist salvation.

I am leery of any system of doing theology that thinks it more important to frighten people into faith than to read the Bible properly. Frankly. If the Buddhists want to regard death as salvific, that’s their look-out.

And third, although I am a robust Protestant, I read a little bit of Dante every week, which helps keep me centered.

I would have thought that would only help to keep a person stuck in the thirteenth century.

Of course the New Testament is saturated in Old Testament themes, motifs, allusions, quotations, and so on. And if you are an Old Testament scholar, you might be tempted to think that this is all that is going on. But if you are acquainted with classical literature, you will discover that there is a lot of that too.

But where exactly? Where exactly with reference to the supposed doctrine of hell? One obscure reference to Tartarus? Is that it?

But Sheol and Hades are both places where shades congregate, and it isn’t the graveyard.

I’m not arguing about the location of Sheol and Hades. I agree that it’s not the grave and that it’s full of shady characters. My point is that there is nothing in scripture (Jewish apocalypticism is another matter) to suggest that in the intertestamental period, when no one was looking, the place of the dead was refurbished after the Greek fashion, with plush en suite quarters for the righteous and torture chambers for the unrighteous. The rich man and Lazarus story doesn’t help here because Lazarus isn’t in Hades, and in any case it’s a parable. In John’s final vision Death and Hades give up the dead in them before judgment takes place and are immediately thrown into the lake of fire, to be heard of no more. Now it wouldn’t be fair, would it, to punish people in Hades before they are actually judged?

I believe that Jonah had actually died and gone to Sheol, and was revived by the Lord in the belly of the fish so that he could then pray…

Are you serious? Jonah cried out from the “belly of Sheol” (Jon. 2:2). He prayed after he died and God heard him? And you call yourself a Protestant! 

God cut off centuries of Hebraic cultivation that had gotten diseased, and grafted in some wild Greek notions to give the history of Western thought that extra tang (“Darn! Plato again!”).

We’re not talking about “centuries of Hebraic cultivation”. We’re talking about scripture.

But why would this not be an appropriate metaphor to warn every man about what was going to happen to him?

Why not? Because not “every man” is a member of Israel facing judgment by war. That’s why not. Gehenna and Isaiah’s corpses are images of the horror of God’s judgment on his people. You can’t just take them and apply them willy-nilly, as you want, just because you feel it right to terrify people into believing. In any case, they are not images of post mortem suffering. Corpses don’t suffer. They are images of what happens to the living. They die.

For example, the Bible never calls the Church the new Eve, but the new Adam has a bride, who must therefore be a new Eve — and who is the mother of all the living, or the mother of us all.

A bad analogy. We are not inferring the existence of the church from the fact that Adam had a wife. As I pointed out, Peter only has the fallen angels in Tartarus. He could have put the generation drowned in the flood there but he didn’t.

See, I am not crazy, though it sometimes looks that way initially.

So contrary to all the evidence in scripture and the literature of second temple Judaism “paradise” is underground? And you’re not crazy?

But Peter says that Jesus preached to antediluvians.

Yes, that would be the metaphor.

When Jesus warns that it would be better to lose a hand than to go with two hands into gehenna, He describes it with an appositive, “the unquenchable fire” (asbeston pur). Every judgment in history is a type of every other divine judgment in history, of course, including Sodom as a warning to Jerusalem. But Sodom and Jerusalem together are a warning to every man.

The “unquenchable fire” simply reinforces the connection with Old Testament images of judgment on Jerusalem. Jerusalem was destroyed, its inhabitants were killed, their bodies were not afforded proper burial. At no point is it said that they were punished after death. If Sodom and Jerusalem are a “warning to every man”, they can only be a warning that the price for rebellion against God is death.

When Paul warned Felix of the “judgment to come,” if he had been warning about what was coming up for Jerusalem, Felix ought not to have trembled at all. First, he was a Roman, and they were going to win that one. And second, if it were that kind of temporal judgment, he could always inquire carefully about the times, like Herod did with the wise men, and put in a duty request to be transfered to Spain.

Why do we assume that Felix took it personally? My argument is that the “coming judgment” is a political category. Whether he understood it as a reference to judgment on Israel or judgment on Rome, Felix was a politician tasked with keeping the peace. Paul earlier made the point that Felix had for many years been “judge over this nation” (Acts 24:10). Felix appears to have been mainly concerned to placate the Jews (Acts 24:27). There will be a judgment of all the dead (Rev. 20:12-13), but I don’t think this is what Paul was talking about. Paul was talking politics.


Douglas Wilson (whose blog response I have enjoyed reading, and whose arguments deserve more careful scrutiny than this) says, parenthetically, but reinforcing a line of deduction:

For example, the Bible never calls the Church the new Eve, but the new Adam has a bride, who must therefore be a new Eve – and who is the mother of all the living, or the mother of us all.

The phrase “mother of us all” sounded familiar. It is from Galatians 4:26, in the KJV version –

“But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.”

Deductions can sometimes lead us in the wrong direction!

Good point!

You can never be quite sure online. Too many wolves in sheeps’ clothing. And vice versa. Thanks for the confirmation.

I can attest to that: Pastor Wilson is one of the most gracious guys around, I promise you.
As an onlooker, I would love to see this debate continue until it comes to a stand still. It seems like there’s still a lot of ground to cover, though. This may seem like a very peripheral issue to many who already have their minds made up, but I do think it is an extremely important subject and very relevant to the times, so I would love to see two of my favorite theologians go at this from their unique perspectives at least until both sides completely understand the other, unless you both think that’s already happened.
So far I lean towards Perriman’s argument because it seems simpler (not that simpler is always better, but in this case it seems like it is: if God through the NT writers was warning us of eternal torture I think he might have been more straightforward about it), but I am interested in the nuances involved with Pastor Wilson’s argument about Greek being grafted into the Hebrew.
Please continue this debate!

Steven, I read this. I don’t know where Mike’s coming from, but to my way of thinking he is not interpreting the text but offering a sort of allegorizing midrash on the theme of the land. It has a certain coherence to it, but it exhibits very little direct correspondence to biblical thought.

Ha! Yeah, Midrashy might be a good way to describe it. But if you read a lot of his stuff, he’s actually quite consistent/systematic (he even calls what he does “Systematic Typology”). In any case, his typology I think is more biblical than a lot of the theological abstractions out there. I think tt fits really well with narrative theology because narratives are full of symbols and allegories, and if you can pick up on them, it helps you understand the story. The symbols are a language of their own, using pictures to tell the story.

Yes, it fits a narrative theology well. But I don’t think it fits a narrative-historical theology so well. The historical component doesn’t allow quite that free-play of symbolism and allegory. It introduces a critical and restrictive function that compels us to ask not simply whether a “meaning” is consistent with a larger narrative schema but whether it is historically plausible.