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

Hell on earth and the problems of evangelical dualism (among other things)

In a comment on my Hell, the unbiblical doctrine of post Steve makes two substantial criticisms of my general approach. The first is that it is a mistake to assume a continuity of words and concepts between the Old Testament and the New Testament:

The Old Testament was physically oriented, while the New Testament was spiritually oriented. The OT physical emphasis on the temple, priesthood, sacrifices, feasts, etc. Foreshadowed the NT spiritual realities of those things. Same words, different application.

The second is roughly that we get into all sorts of moral and theological difficulties if we extend the argument about “hell on earth” and try to interpret “violent and destructive events like wars, famines, and perhaps natural disasters” today as acts of divine judgment.

The first argument I disagree with because it presupposes a dualism that is alien to biblical thought. There is some force to the second, but I’m not sure that we are theologically obliged to extrapolate from the particular biblical narrative about judgment and salvation.

It is certainly true that Jesus translated much of the symbolism of Israel’s political-religious existence into other terms. At a time of eschatological crisis he reconfigured Israel around himself and his own exceptional vocation rather than around the temple in Jerusalem and the hope of an earthly Davidic dynasty. But I would argue, nevertheless, that it is a standard mistake of modern theologies—such as much current evangelical theology—to think that the physical structures of the Old Testament are simply and comprehensively spiritualized in the New Testament.

The a-historical dualism implicit in this argument lies at the heart of many of the shortcomings of modern evangelicalism—not least the difficulty that it has in integrating social justice into its life and witness.

The New Testament does not spiritualize the physical temple. It puts forward a replacement for it and to some extent constructs that replacement typologically. Why was a replacement needed? Because God was about to destroy the temple and Jerusalem as an act of final judgment against a rebellious nation. Would this be a pleasant experience? No, it would be accompanied by the full horrors of invasion, siege, disease, famine, and slaughter. The Jews, in Jesus’ opinion, would do better to tear out an eye or cut off a limb than suffer this terrible fate—when thousands of corpses would be thrown into the valleys around Jerusalem for want of space to bury them in the besieged city.

This is still an outworking of the Old Testament story, which is why the Old Testament language and conceptuality remain directly relevant. What Jeremiah predicted for sixth century Jerusalem Jesus predicted for first century Jerusalem—and Josephus relates that this was exactly the outcome of the siege:

Now the seditious at first gave orders that the dead should be buried out of the public treasury, as not enduring the stench of their dead bodies. But afterwards, when they could not do that, they had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath. (Jos. War 5.518)

So given the fact that Jesus was not less than a Jewish prophet, that he spoke of judgment against Jerusalem in language taken from the Old Testament prophets, and that 40 years later Jerusalem fell to the armies of Rome in exactly the same manner that it had fallen to the Babylonian armies 600 years earlier, it seems to me that the onus lies with modern interpreters to show that he intended his words to be understood spiritually or metaphysically—that is, in a manner quite out of keeping with Jewish thought—and not with reference to the fate of historical Israel.

At the heart of the story that is being told is the concrete historical existence of a people, and there is always a political dimension to the existence of a people, despite the best attempts of modern rationalistic theology to eliminate this aspect.

What Jesus does through his death and resurrection is ensure, in the first place, the survival of a people descended from Abraham. The means of salvation has changed—through faithfulness, suffering and death, rather than through loyalty to torah or through political or military strength; and because the means of salvation has changed, the make-up of the community has changed—a people called to the same faithfulness in the power of the Spirit. But the physical arena of the church’s existence in relation to the nations remains the same.

Moreover, the political narrative does not stop there. This renewed and transformed people finds itself profoundly at odds with the pagan world, which it challenges with its message of a coming “judgment”. I think that the New Testament—Paul in particular—continues to draw on Old Testament language and conceptuality in order to construct a hopeful eschatological narrative for the suffering churches scattered across the Greek-Roman oikoumenē or “empire”. The martyrs of the early church died as a result of political disobedience.

It seems to me that this is all a very natural and coherent outworking of the Old Testament narrative, which, historically speaking, aims at the eventual victory of Israel’s God over the gods of the surrounding empires (Is. 45; Phil. 2:6-11; Rev. 19). God judges Jerusalem through the agency of a pagan oppressor; he restores and renews his people through Jesus; and he “judges” the pagan world against the benchmark of a righteous alternative humanity in Christ.

But that is a particular and limited narrative trajectory. It does not mean that all catastrophic events, man-made or otherwise, count as particular judgments of God, beyond the very general notion that destruction, decay and disintegration are consequences of human rebellion.

I rather think that the church should learn how to warn contemporary society about the consequences of its idolatries, its obsessions. The emphasis there has to be on learning—I think we still fall some way short of the imagination and integrity required to bear credible corporate witness to a socio-political alternative to Western consumerist secularism.

But the biblical pattern of judgment on the people of God followed by judgment on the enemies of the people of God (wrath against the Jew, then wrath against the Greek), has been broken by the fact that the church is no longer under the condemnation of the Law. God’s people will not again be “destroyed” in the way that first century Jerusalem was “destroyed”, because we are subject to grace and not to Law.