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

Who else has argued that Gehenna is a place of historical judgment? I see one hand hesitantly raised

I have argued in The Coming of the Son of Man (91-94) and frequently on this blog that in Jesus’ teaching the Greek word geenna, which is usually erroneously translated “hell”, signifies not a general “place” of punishment of sinners after death but divine punishment of Jerusalem by means of military invasion.

The argument is quite straightforward: Jesus believed that in the absence of national repentance his people faced the destruction of war (cf. Matt. 22:7; Lk. 21:20); Jeremiah warned the inhabitants of Jerusalem that because of the evil that they had done in the sight of the Lord they would fall by the sword when the Babylonians invaded, and the bodies of the dead would be thrown into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom (Jer. 7:32-34; 19:10-11); Josephus later describes how during the Roman siege the Jews were compelled to throw the dead over the walls of the city into the surrounding valleys for lack of space to bury them (Jos. War 5.12.3); so it seems highly likely that Jesus intended to make the same point. I think the argument is exegetically sound and makes a lot of sense as part of a narrative-historical reading of the New Testament.

Mitchell Powell, however, asks a pertinent question: “who is the earliest recorded reader of the New Testament you know of to advocate such a view?” Well, I have to say that to the best of my knowledge it appears to be very much a minority position.

The commentaries generally note that the valley was a place defiled by the practice of human sacrifice which became a rubbish dump where fires continually burned, though the last point has recently been contested. Nolland concludes: “it is not difficult to understand that Gehenna could become an image for the place of God’s judgment.”1 But I don’t think I’ve come across the particular connection that we have in Jeremiah with the besieging of Jerusalem. It seems to be widely agreed amongst mainstream scholars that Jesus is speaking of the final judgment of humanity. If anyone knows otherwise, I would love to hear about it.

The argument can be found, however, more or less, in Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. He hints in this direction when he quotes Mark 9:43-49 and then says: “The judgment was coming upon ‘this generation’, now caught in the act of rejecting the final messenger who had been sent to call it back to obedience” (330). But a couple of footnotes make the point explicit. First, he says with reference to Jeremiah 7 that the passage “goes on to warn that the valley of Hinnom (= ‘Gehenna’) will become a mass grave” (419). Secondly, he makes this hesitant and not entirely transparent observation:

The extent to which [Gehenna] is used in the gospels metaphorically for an entirely non-physical place of torment, and the extent to which, in its metaphorical use, it retains the sense of a physical conflagration such as might accompany the destruction of Jerusalem by enemy forces, ought not to be decided in advance of a full study of Jesus’ meaning. (454-55)

I see no reason for the hesitation. I think that Jesus used the language of geenna only metonymically to speak of the horrors of military invasion and the destruction of the city.

So my view is not entirely without precedent, though I’m pretty sure that I had not come across those footnotes in Jesus and the Victory of God when I wrote The Coming of the Son of Man. But I could be wrong.

  • 1. J. Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 678).

Comments

Neither your view nor the majority view gets close enough to the truth Jesus was conveying. This truth is that Gehenna was becoming (out of its historical-narrative context) a metaphor for the spiritual alternative to life in the kingdom of God. Since the kingdom of God came in the first century according to the timetable Jesus laid down, it is here and now. Thus life outside it (Gehenna) is here and now.

We either live turned toward the Son and experience the life of Eden or we live with our backs to Him and experience the wrath brought on by our sins.

Certainly you are being relevant to point out that the awful destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. matters in this regard. But the kingdom and the correlative wrath were to come later that century. The fall of Jerusalem emphasizes the veracity of Jesus and the seriousness of the warning.

The response for us today is to stop giving mere lip service to Jesus Christ, and instead to live with open hearts in His presence seeking to do only those things that are pleasing to Him. Most Christians today know only a way of spirituality practiced by the Pharisees - that is, outward. In other words, we today need to repent!

Andrew

Thanks for the answer.

Mike

To say that most Christians know only an outward spirituality is a very big judgment to make. Is this an impression they give you or have you made some effort to count them? Blanket denunciations of “most [insert people group here]” are a dime a dozen, and without support can appear careless and insulting.

Mitchell,

I don’t make the claim lightly, and I wish deeply that it were not so.

I make the observation based on a number of things. Perhaps most signficant for this audience, I will say that I was a pastor for 15 years. During that time I ministered to many families, which, of course, brought me into contact with their non-Christian relatives. Through these many experiences I came to the sad realization that there was no discernible difference between the morality practiced by the Christians and the non-Christians.

Closer to home, I came to realize in my own life that the presence of God was only a theoretical concept to me. Until I began regarding the eyes of Jesus as always watching me, and my every thought mattering to Him, there was no meaningful purification of my heart. But as I began to live my life in His presence, much as Brother Lawrence suggested in The Practice of the Presence of God, I came to realize just how Pharisaical my previous life had been. People pleasing is the antithesis of seeking to please God. In preaching this message to others, I have had many people confess the same realization about themselves to me. Alas, it has not been common for such people to “stick with it.” Or, more accurately and importantly, to “stick with Him.” May God have mercy.

Even the statistical studies done which are most favorable to Christians do not show the kind of differential in moral excellence that we as believers in Christ would like to see. Divorce rates, pornography, pre-marital and extra-marital sex are all at disappointing levels among Christians.

Are we to throw up our hands and say, “It’s hopeless - we can’t live any better than the rest!” or are we to turn to the One who says that the most important thing is to stay turned to Him…all…the…time.

Repentance to righteousness is the call of God in our generation. I am determined to heed it. It is not as if we have faith and lack obedience. We lack both.

Given your comments about divorce rates, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, pornography etc amongst Christians you may be interested in some stats (relating to the US) examined by Sociologist Bradley Wright. Check out the series of posts on his blog from May and June 2007:

http://tinyurl.com/yb8kxxcg

Rob,

Thanks for your reply, but I stand by my position. Studies like Wright’s were in mind when I wrote:

Even the statistical studies done which are most favorable to Christians do not show the kind of differential in moral excellence that we as believers in Christ would like to see. Divorce rates, pornography, pre-marital and extra-marital sex are all at disappointing levels among Christians.

If you are not disappointed by the levels Wright shows for Christians on these subjects then, as Daniel Patrick Monihan said in a similar context, we are “defining deviancy down.”

We are indeed defining deviancy downward in terms of consensual extra-marital sex, I will admit, but the deviancy limit only got as high as it got due to a long period of defining sexual deviancy up. In pretty much all the west prior to the last two hundred years, publicly available brothels existed. Now Johns are treated as deviants. We are defining deviancy down in terms of the viewing of pornography, but we have ratcheted the incest taboo in modern times up to dizzying proportions (most people in the US today would consider sex with a second cousin disgusting, while anyone who has mapped out their family tree more than two or three generations, or spent a significant amount of time with Amish people, can see that it was not always so.) We have also defined upward the deviancy of sexual relationships seen as exploitative: throughout much of history, and much of the world, a financially successful forty-year-old man could marry a sixteen-year-old girl or keep a couple as mistresses. Today, he is considered a pervert.

When syphilis arrived in the Spain in 1492/3, it spread with lightning quickness and reached China in less than ten years, despite bringing disfiguring death within a few months. I’m not sure promiscuity in the Western world has increased since 1500 since everything is added up.

Even if we concede that we have defined non-violent sexual deviancy downward historically, there are other classes of behavior where we have defined deviancy upward. Children bullying each other is considered a real social disease now, and violence between them is treated with incredible seriousness, even though in the 1950’s or earlier no one would have treated it as a real problem. Similarly, beating children is less acceptable than it has ever been, and rates of violent crimes such as assault, rape, and murder are at incredibly low rates relative to history.

Deviancy goes up; deviancy goes down; and those who search carefully can always find either positive or negative statistics concerning historical trends. My take: I’d rather raise kids today than in my grandfather’s generation. The sheer quantity of physical violence in his hometown during the Great Depression shocks all of us.

(With regard to rates of physical violence, it’s probably easier for me to say some of these things because I’m white. In 2009, for instance, Cincinnati had 49 murders – a particularly good year. Of those, not one was white. Things aren’t so good right now for Non-Asian Minorities in the US, but even so, black-on-black violence is lower than its been in twenty years, and Hispanics are making rapid academic and social gains.)

My window for this issue is smaller and more personal.

I am sixty years old. When I was a teenager the moral environment was unhealthy. It was worse for my children. And it is worse still for my grandchildren. In order to be concrete for this discussion, I’m defining a healthy moral environment as that which is supportive of sexual purity (sex only for marriage and that between a man and woman). An unhealthy moral environment is one that is hostile to this standard.

One emblematic anecdote is that when I was a teenager, homosexuality was rarely discussed, and the behavior was stigmatized. Today homosexuality is routinely discussed, even having become a staple of family sitcoms, and anyone who doesn’t speak positively about it and call it gay, including an option for “marriage,” is stigmatized. That’s downward with velocity.

I’ll grant that the sexual standards of Western culture have been greatly relaxed over the last fifty years. No argument here.

Mike,

I wasn’t expressing an opinion I was just pointing you in the direction of statistics you may be interested in (if you are not already familiar with them, which it appears you may be given your comments above). My personal opinion is - as I have in the past been personally guilty of more than one of the above - as none of these surveys (or any others I have seen) asked questions about whether these events happened pre - or post conversion, or whether the guilty parties repented afterwards and have not committed repeat offences, they say very little, if anything about the morality of believers. Furthermore, perhaps the focus should be on encouraging each other to do the good things we ought to do and don’t, you know, give up our possessions for the poor, share our shirts with those that don’t have one, invite criminals, prostitutes, social rejects into our homes… Regarding your latter point about homosexuality, the rest of the world thinks Christians are obsessed with it, whereas, despite widespread homosexual practice in the roman empire, if Tertullian is to be believed, the early church was known by the Romans for the love it’s members showed one another. Perhaps it is time to change the record.

Rob,

Is serving alcohol to an alcoholic the way to show love to him?

Mike,

Sometimes, depends on the context. Taking away alcohol does not take away the desire to drink yourself into oblivion or address the causes of that desire. Furthermore, for those alcoholics who are ready and willing to address their desire for alcohol, there are solutions other than abstinence that have had high success rates - Cue Exposure Therapy for example. I am sure you didn’t ask me expecting a detailed answer though, so why did you ask?

I wanted you to see the analogy.

You’re quite right that I can stop someone’s alcohol habit by not offering them a drink. Nor can I stop homosexuality by refusing to vote for the sanctioning of “gay marriage.” However, if I believe these things are wrong then I do wrong, and further tempt to sin, when I offer my alcoholic friend a drink or voice my approval of homosexual behavior.

There are many ways to show love to my neighbor that don’t require me to encourage him to do things which violate my sense of what God deems holy and good for him.

For the world to say that Christians are obessessed with the issue of homosexuality is like the Germans in the Fall of 1939 saying that the Poles were obsessed with Panzer tanks. Christians are playing nothing but defense on this issue. And unless there is a revival of conscience among a broader base, they will lose.

And … Godwin’s Law lives!

If it is absolutely necessary to compare the supporters of gay marriage to a genocidal dictator’s troops, then just about any genocidal dictator would be a more fair choice than Hitler.

Both Hitler and the Nazis were completely irrelevant to my point, which is why I didn’t mention them. My point was to illustrate a group of inferior size or power being overwhelmed by a superior group. We are, at least in the U.S., a media culture and the media overwhelmingly supports gay rights over Christian conscience.

I think the two percent or so of Americans who are gay are so incredibly outnumbered by the one hundred twenty million evangelical population of the US that your illustration is backwards.

Besides, Christian conscience seems to vary from age to age. Starting around 400 A.D., shortly after the Roman Empire became Christian, at least some parts of the Roman Empire started burning gays at the stake. By the 1800-1900’s, such behavior was no more, but gays were generally kept closeted. A slight majority of born-again Christians aged 35 and up believe gays should not be allowed to marry (63%). On the other hand, only a minority of born-again Christians under thirty-five believe the same thing (44%).

So, depending on who you ask, “Christian conscience” has indicated that gays should be burned (say, the Christian conscience in Rome c.a. 400 A.D.), that gays should be socially shunned and kept quiet (the majority of evangelicals in America born prior to 1977), or that gays should be allowed to marry (the majority of evangelicals born after 1977).

So I don’t think its quite accurate to say that our media overwhelmingly supports gay rights over Christian conscience. I think it would be more accurate to say that our media tend to side with Christians under thirty-five on this issue rather than with Christians over thirty-five.

There are no Panzers coming after anyone. Our government is simply moving in the same direction as American evangelical Christians are.

Mitchell,

The trajectory of public opinion in our lifetime, when extended forward, certainly does portend the full legitimization of homosexuality as worthy of marriage. That evangelical Christianity can be shown to be going along with this trend says less about the morality of the trend than it does about the immorality of evangelical Christianity. One does not stand for the Lord by going along with the drift of society.

It is not the 2% that give this issue its political power but rather the far larger number of people who do not wish any contraints on their own pleasure seeking. “Gay marriage” is the signature issue of those who contend that man, not God, is in charge of setting sexual boundaries.

Go ahead. Pass all the laws you want. You won’t remove the stain of our sins in His eyes.

God help us to repent.

The trajectory of gay rights laws has gone something like this. I’ll grossly oversimplify, but this is the general trajectory: (1) death penalty for gays in many places around 1500, (2) Jefferson suggests the lighter penalty of castration around 1779, (3) homosexuality is generally left alone by authorities so long as it occurs in private, but with some cracking down on openly pro-gay establishments circa 1950, (4) homosexuality is fully legally tolerated but not recognized with marriage circa 1980, and (5) homosexual marriage begins to be legalized starting around 2000.

When you say that evangelicalism should not drift along with society, my guess is that you approve of the drift, either up to the legal station of 1950 or 1980, but disapprove of it afterward. I understand that this is what you’re conscience tells you, but I hope you can imagine why to many others it will seem like you’ve just picked the arbitrary historical point you were raised in and then equated it with God’s eternal opinion as to what the government’s policy should be vis-a-vis homosexuality.

Again, I am guessing that you would prefer the legal situation circa 1950 or possibly 1980 to what existed previously in Christian cultures. But feel free to let me know if I’m wrong here.

As for relevance to the original post I am persuaded from the Scriptures that Jesus’ use of Gehenna was to describe the wrath of God that falls upon those outside the kingdom of God in response to sin - on this earth and in this life (Jerusalem in 70 AD being but a prominent example). That is, everyone is going to heaven, as Hades (Sheol) was emptied and removed at the Second Coming. Therefore, my concern for those who practice sexual immorality is tempered by my expectation of an ultimately good outcome for them. Nonetheless, much pain, suffering, and disappointment comes from sin. The narrative of Jesus is a healing balm for both sin and its consequences.

Lest anyone should infer from your “general” trajectory that movement on this issue has been consistently in the same direction, I should mention that James McGrath is currently blogging that homosexual practice was commonplace and accepted in the Greco-Roman world.

Jesus did not favor civil penalties against the woman caught in adultery, but neither did he seek to endow her adulterous relationships with the status of marriage. He thus demonstrates that the ebb and flow of civil laws need not be tied to the morality of the practice in question, even though society usually sees things that way. Evangelicals, narratively-oriented or not, ought to know better.

Mike, thank you for giving of your time for a sane conversation in a world that’s often unwilling to have them.

You are right, of course, that prior to Christendom the Greco-Roman world was more accepting of homosexuality. As far as I know, the long peak of anti-gay legislation in Christendom began around 390 with the burning of gays, stayed up there a long time, and then began a long downward decline. Your position is that the decline it the Christian “sweet spot” around 1980 and has since overshot its mark. Your position, as I understand it, is a basically libertarian one: the government is to enforce neither a pro-Christian nor anti-Christian ethic. All right. There is something to be said for “live and let live” and I doubt governments can be much closer to neutral on homosexuality than were between the retraction of anti-sodomy laws and the first legal gay marriages.

You clearly do not believe that evangelicals should impose biblical laws on sexuality in essentially the same form they are contained in the legal texts of Scripture (no stonings, no state-enforced marriages between rapists and their victims), but you also clearly believe that a biblical approach in general to sexuality should inform our public policy. This makes you, I think, some sort of moderate when it comes to how much religion in government you want.

In the interests of religious moderations, here’s something to consider. Even though, when reading the Bible as a whole, believers today agree that its <i>ideal</i> is monogamous marriage, the Bible’s legislation concerning <i>legal</i> marriage allows legal recognition for marriages which are morally opposed to this ideal: polygamous marriages. There is some warrant for the practicalities of law providing ways to legally regulate even disapproved-of unions for purposes of child welfare and inheritance law. The person who wants the Bible’s views on civil marriage to be an important consideration in today’ s laws on civil marriage will have to decide why it was acceptable for the state to grant legal recognition of polygamous unions three thousand years ago but not same-sex unions today.

I’d still vote against gay marriage, but I think we need to admit that the biblical case against it is a lot fuzzier than is commonly admitted.

Mitchell,

I’m merely trying to imitate Jesus, who distinguished between political and spiritual ways of addressing sin. Of course, the main issue in adapting His example to our current context is that democracy expects its citizens to be more vocal about the laws they want than did the governements under which Jesus found Himself.

As for the Bible, while it does record for us the will of God I believe it also makes clear that the Mosaic Law was for an ANE context, not the age to come, in which we live. Thus today the Bible speaks to our consciences in spiritual terms, and it is to the truth of God in our consciences that we must be true. Not every person has read the Bible, and none of us completely understands it - but everyone has a conscience. Adherence to conscience is not a guarantee of being right, but disregard of conscience is a guarantee of being wrong. For this reason the word of God - and not merely that which is confined to print - is invaluable for the continual calibration of our consciences.

It is indeed hard to transfer the values of one context to another. May God be with us all.

If I may prod you just a little bit more on this, Andrew, are there any scholars who have pushed back against your assertions vis-a-vis Gehenna?

I’m outside of my normal realm when trying to decipher N.T. texts (more a Hebrew guy myself), so it would be helpful to see your minority view critiqued by a competent “majority view” N.T. scholar. I’m naturally biased in favor of minority views, so I’m trying to teach myself to do my due diligence and double-check before hopping onto every new bandwagon.

If your view turns out to be viable over the next few decades, I imagine that it should generate quite a bit of talk. There’s already many people very dissatisfied with traditional treatments of hell for a number of reasons; your take might be just the sort of thing many are looking for.

You might check “Essays on Eschatology” by Sam Dawson (who relies somewhat on “Origin and Histories of the Doctrine of Eternal Punishment, 1855) for more background on your position.

One quick way to tell if commentators have spoken directly to this question is how they define the terms in their own writing. If they are being lazy with the terms hell, hades, sheol, and gehenna then you are pretty much guaranteed to have a muddled message from them. Since writers have only recently begun to take a second look at the differences in definitions of those terms (sort of like the differences between parousia and erchomai) I don’t think you’ll find much careful thought on the matter in modern times. Dawson also refers to a quote of Augustine in “City of God” Book IV in which he theorizes that governments (really church/state hybrids) were fans of eternal punishment because of the psychological advantages it gave them over the masses. Finally, “The Fire The Consumes” by Fudge has some good information on the concept of “eternal” in regards to punishment.

Doug – Does Dawson interact with Perriman’s arguments? Otherwise, I’m afraid I’ve read my fill of preterists, at least for this year.

I haven’t read the chapter in detail yet. I read his online article that is a summary of his position so I know that his argument is very similar to Perrimans. I don’t know if he interacts with Perriman directly in the book (of course he’s making an almost identical point, so he’s engaging with what Perriman is saying, though I don’t know if he is doing so directly). I scanned Dawson’s book chapter for his references to answer the question of who else has written on the topic.

I think the proponents of this position are missing the point, BTW. If gehenna and the crisis in 70AD are the only point behind judgment and salvation, then this seriously challenges whether or not people can be saved today. They can’t be saved from the threat presented in the NT narrative, so what exactly are they being saved from? The result from what I’ve seen is universalism, though I don’t think the various authors have acknowledged this. On the other hand, I’d suggest that the tangible fulfillment in 70AD was an object lesson designed to teach a parallel spiritual lesson to the whole world into the future from that date. My conclusion above is based on my understanding the reason for God to have created Israel and its narrative in scripture to begin with.

I made that connection a while back while studying Matthew 5. It seems to me that verses 27-31 are warnings against the false teachings of the Pharisees and Saducees (or perhaps others, that true followers of the Way should ‘pluck it out’ or ‘cut it off’ rather than all of the Jews be subject to the judgement revealed in Jeremiah 19. I’m glad someone else has made a similar connection. I thought it interesting as well that the 30 pieces of silver that Judas returned would later buy a ‘potters field’ in the Vally of Ben Hinnom, the very place Jeremiah bought his pot to symbolize how the Jewish kingdom would be shattered, which seems to tie the whole thing up.

Andrew,

Edward Fudge’s book The Fire that Consumes does. That book is probably the most indepth presentation out there.

Thanks for all the helpful comments. I’m travelling at the moment and can’t offer much by way of intelligent response, but I’ll come back to them later.

Andrew,

Doubtless you will notice that I’ve allowed myself to go rather astray of the original topic on this thread in my conversation with Mike Gantt. The straying, as you have noticed, was initiated by me, as I saw what I thought was an opening to continue discussing things which, while not strictly on topic, are relevant to the church learning how to tell its story within our broader narrative.

In all of this, I want to be respectful of the fact that this blog in general is your front porch and not mine. If you want to me to stick more tightly to the original post topics, I would be happy to. Otherwise, I’ll keep using my best discretion and stray off topic when the conversation gives me openings, when I think it is constructive, and when the conversation is relevant to the broader topic of developing an evangelical theology for the age to come.

Peace,

Mitchell.

You do have this from Wright:

“His message to his contemporaries was stark, and (as we would say today) ‘political’. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) who resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smouldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’, that is the primary meaning he had in mind.”

http://tinyurl.com/y7a9acg3