Daniel Meeter has written an elegant, lucid, sensible, and humane book about hell and, as far as I am concerned, gets most of it right. The basic argument of (Shook Foil Books, 2012) is that the “Bible does not teach that anyone spends eternity in hell” but that doesn’t matter because there are plenty of other much better reasons to be a Christian. In fact, most of the book is about those other reasons. Why be a Christian? Because being a Christian offers a way to be spiritual, to pray, to save your soul, to be a human being, to know God… and finally, to go to heaven, sort of. Lines are carefully drawn between the Christian faith and other religions. The book is non-judgmental, but it knows where it stands. Some good unpretentious stories are told. Here are some of the theological points that stood out for me….
- There’s eternal life for some, but no eternal living in hell. The wages of sin is death, nothing more, nothing less. (I’ve said that often enough.) “The God of the Hebrew Bible… would be horrified at the thought of keeping somebody alive a long time in confinement just to torture him.” That’s well put.
- But in that case, Meeter asks, why do so many people think that hell exists? Answer: Greek-minded Gentiles came to believe in hell because they had inherited from their culture unbiblical ideas about the immortality of the soul. Good souls could go to heaven, but where would the bad souls go? They couldn’t die, so a suitably unpleasant alternative to heaven had to be devised. Hell.
- Jesus uses the metaphor of “Gehenna” to speak of the “shame of Jerusalem for rejecting him, and the shame of the people for ignoring God”. Yes, but why not make the connection with the razing of the city by the Romans? Meeter develops the argument further on his blog.
The garbage dump of Jerusalem was a valley called Gehenna. It had fires that smoldered endlessly. Gehenna was symbolic for the prophets, who wrote that after the battle to liberate Jerusalem, the bodies of their enemies would be cast into Gehenna, instead of buried, which meant great shame, and so would the bodies of the unrighteous Jews. They would not be buried in good kosher graveyards, their bones would ever be unkosher and unclean, and that would exclude them from the final resurrection of the Jewish nation, and exclude them from Kingdom of God and from the life of the world to come. Their exclusion would be their non-existence.
I’m mystified by his reference to “the battle to liberate Jerusalem”. If he means the references to the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom in Jeremiah, the battle foreseen was one that would destroy Jerusalem. But having seen that Jesus used the language of the prophets, why not draw the obvious conclusion that he had in mind a similar historical outcome? “Gehenna” was not merely a metaphor for shame and exclusion from the age to come: it was a prophecy of impending judgment on Israel in the frightening form of war and destruction.
- The single unifying story of the Bible is the kingdom of God. Agreed, though I would have put it in more historical terms.
- Salvation is not about saying the right formula to get to heaven; it’s “the fruit and expression of a relationship that you have with God”. Again, I would take it a step further and start with the salvation of the community, then ask what that means for the individual.
- The “whole process and strategy by which God fixes and heals the world is called the Kingdom of God.” That’s very Tom Wright. I’m still not convinced. God is having a hard enough time fixing and healing the church.
- The most important Christian teachings and doctrines ‘are not ideas but rather reports and interpretations of… actions and events, sort of like reports in the evening news. The word “gospel” means “good news.”’ Excellent.
- One of the good reasons for being a Christian is that you get to have Jesus. But you get him as Lord. For the early churches it meant that “their loyalty to the Kingdom of God was higher than their loyalty to the Empire of Rome”. But what might that mean for us? Meeter doesn’t have much to say on the matter. You have to consider “what this means for all your other loyalties and obligations, like your citizenship, or your loyalty to your national way of life”. But that’s too vague. I think that the church will have to learn to articulate much more sharply and much more uncomfortably in what ways the lordship of Christ tears us away from our culture.
- The conventional view is that when Christians die, their souls go to heaven, where they wait until the final judgment to be reunited with their resurrected bodies. Meeter disagrees with the conventional view. He thinks that eternal life is based not on the immortality of the soul but on resurrection, which will be followed by new heavens and new earth. There is no intermediate state, but if you prefer the euphemism of falling asleep to the stark reality of returning to the dust of the earth, that’s fine. Meeter likes what Polkinghorne has to say on the subject: “We all die at different times in the world, but we all arrive simultaneously on the day of resurrection in the world to come.”
In an appendix Meeter lists a limited number of books which have influenced his thinking: N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (2008) and The Resurrection of the Son of God (2003) (though, like me, he is not convinced by Wright’s treatment of the intermediate state in Paul); Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson, Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians (2008); and John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (2002).
I like this book a lot. I think it could be more radical. I think we still have some way to go in understanding how the stuff of the New Testament works in its historical context. But Daniel Meeter shows that it is possible to ground good pastoral and apologetic teaching in a loosely narrative-historical reading of scripture. The argument about hell may seem an odd way in to what is really a quite wide-ranging account of what it means to be a Christian. Meeter has “put them up front to clear away one of the most troubling teachings of historic Christianity”. But the real value, to my way of thinking, is that the principle is established at the outset that we are having to define being Christian in a new critical engagement with scripture.