p.ost

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

The end of Gehenna

Jeremiah foresees a day of judgment coming upon Israel because the “sons of Judah… have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it”, and have sacrificed their children in Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom (Jer. 7:30).

The Babylonian army will besiege the city, and the dead will be buried in Topheth or strewn across the Valley of the Son of Hinnom to be eaten by birds and beasts, because there is no burial space left in the city. The valley will be renamed the Valley of Slaughter (Jer. 7:30-34; 19:4-9). The city will be a horror, a thing to be hissed at by passers-by.

Jesus predicts the same appalling fate for Jerusalem when he threatens the Pharisees with the judgment of the Valley of the Son of Hinnom—the judgment of Gehenna (Matt. 23:33).

If Israel does not mend its ways, it will suffer invasion and war, and the dead again will be strewn in the valleys outside the walls for lack of burial space in the city, “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mk. 9:48; cf. Is. 66:24). Isaiah has imagined the unburied corpses of those who rebelled against YHWH as a permanent record of judgment.

It would be better for Jesus’ contemporaries to lose an eye or a hand than suffer the catastrophe that Jesus sees coming.

But when Jeremiah pictures a return from captivity and the establishment of a “new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah”, when God will forgive their iniquities and write his Law on their hearts, he also foresees an end to Gehenna:

The whole valley of the dead bodies and the ashes, and all the fields as far as the brook Kidron, to the corner of the Horse Gate toward the east, shall be sacred to the LORD. It shall not be plucked up or overthrown anymore forever. (Jer. 31:40)

The “city shall be rebuilt for the Lord”, and this unholy place, so closely associated with both desecration and judgment, will be made sacred to the Lord. Never again will God’s people suffer such a dreadful destruction. There will be no more hell.

I don’t think we find this thought in the Gospels, but Paul may have the argument in mind, more or less, when he writes:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Rom 8:1–2)

The Law condemns persistently sinful Israel to the sort of destruction that Jesus had envisaged (cf. Rom. 9:22), but those who are “in Christ Jesus” live according to the Spirit and there is no such condemnation for them.

Paul does not invoke the same concrete prophetic narrative—I think because here he has primarily diaspora Judaism in view rather than Jerusalem. Also Paul, like Jesus, is concerned less with the eventual restored state of the people of God than with the difficult historical journey that those in Christ must make in order to get to that place of restoration. In this argument, those who are heirs with Christ are those who suffer as he suffered, and who will be glorified as he was glorified—the martyrs (Rom. 8:17).

But with this new life in the Spirit there is an end to the “hell”—the judgment of Gehenna, the destruction of a people—that so preoccupied Jesus. It won’t happen again.

Comments

For what sort of sins was Israel threatened with the judgment of 70AD? The sermon on the mount seems to suggest it was matters of personal morality (lust or anger etc). But a) 1st century Israel seem generally quite pious - certainly not Vegas.. - and b) Jesus seems very gracious towards those sorts of offenders. He seems to think its the self righteous who are the problem. On the other hand, its hard to see the justice in 70AD if it was punishment for their being over-pious and overly zealous for the eschatology they’d inherited? What kind of repentance would have averted 70AD? I guess it feels harsh to see a marginal people bulldozed by an imperial power and then call it judgment, no? Undoubtedly it was thought of that way by many, but the reasoning feels rather unexplored to me…

I’d say the sins were much more corporate than failures of individual piety. Oppression of the faithful, taking advantage of the poor, leaders using their position for gain and gratification, placing legal yokes on those unable to bear them, neglecting care of the poor and the widow, allying with pagan nations and finding their security in them, assimilating to the world’s culture, and the killing of the prophets that called them to repentance.

I think it’s important to keep in mind that the fall of Jerusalem wasn’t simply recompense, it was also deliverance of God’s elect from their persecutors.

Sure. I tend to think similarly. But I’m still left with the following questions:
1. Do we need a more nuanced way of describing it than national judgment if we’re saying that it was, roughly speaking, judgment on the Hreodians and the Temple aristocracy, (Sadducees and Scribes etc.), but not against the masses…? Lest we fall into the kind of generic anti-jewish rhetoric that early Roman Christianity quickly adopted.
2. I’m still then puzzled by the warnings of Gehenna in the sermon on the mount. Why would you be more likely come a cropper in 70AD if you were having a lustful thoughts or an angry exchange? Is it that you’d be pre-occupied with sinful nonsense and not then be ready to make an escape? Or is the notion that God, in his omnipotence, would put you in harms way as recompense for your sins?

1. Yes, definitely. I try to make this as linguistically clear as I can when I talk about it. It’s about judgement on a power structure, not Judaism per se or Jewish people. However, the fact that they are Israelites is not irrelevant. It’s their status as Jewish leaders under Israel’s covenant that makes them particularly culpable, and judgement begins with the house of God.

2. Well, one thing to keep in mind is that those comments are elucidations of the comment that Jesus’ listeners will not enter the kingdom of heaven unless their faithfulness exceeds the scribes and the Pharisees (who are being judged), and then he illustrates this by going beyond the letter of the Torah. I think it’s sort of a way of saying, “Torah observance won’t save you,” then going on to describe the kind of people who want to be obedient and faithful from the heart. It’s not so much that hating your brother is worthy of eschatological judgement so much as it makes a distinction between the people who are faithful, obedient followers and the people who are just observing Torah.

A sensible question. Thanks.

This was written as a response to the first comment. I notice that more has been said. I am struggling to keep up.

I tend to think that the personal warnings (don’t lust after a woman or you will be thrown into Gehenna) highlight rhetorically a national level transition something like that between the old and new covenant. It has got to the point that the Law (“You have heard it said…”) can only condemn Israel to the destruction of Gehenna—the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, massive loss of life, dispersion, etc. But the internalisation of the law that Jeremiah describes (“But I say to you…”) leads to a radical repentance and reformation that will enable people to escape the judgment of Gehenna—for them, as Jeremiah concludes in verse 40, there will be no more Gehenna.

It would be a good exercise to go through the whole of Matthew, for example, strategic with John the Baptist and consider the reasons for Israel’s condemnation: persecution of the righteous, hypocrisy, false prophecy, rejection of the prophets and of God’s Son, the failure of Israel’s shepherds to care for the lost sheep, refusal to repent, rejection of the Holy Spirit, fruitlessness, contamination by unclean spirits, obstinacy, lawlessness, lip service to God, defilement of the heart, lack of forgiveness, violation of the temple, trust in riches, putting personal commercial and financial commitments before God, and the seven woes of Matthew 23 culminating in the explicit pronouncement of judgment on the city. Anyway, clearly, in Jesus’ view, they were not being punished simply on account of excessive zeal.

The other part to this was that the Jews provoked the Romans and brought destruction down on their own heads. Josephus is very scathing. I think this is what the story of the unclean spirit who comes back with all his friends is all about.

Well Josephus would say that! And I expect that sectarian violence is probably a common outcome among powerless people’s occupied by imperial forces, though no less destructive.
I wonder if, just as second Isaiah begins to retrospectively see the Babylonian exile as, not merely punitive, but also redemptive (in the suffering servant passage etc..), we might also see the 70AD collapse with a similar redemptive pathos - as I think Paul tries to do in Romans 11:11-16…?
Apologies if this is tangential. Many thanks both. Very helpful thoughts…

Andrew is going to come along and say something smarter than this, but I think that judgment and deliverance are two sides of the same coin, and I also think this is very important to understanding the character of God.

God doesn’t topple nations just because He’s angry at all the sin and sin deserves a good topplin’. He topples those nations so He can deliver the faithful who have to live under those evil regimes. And, as you’ve noted, there’s always the hope that the punitive actions will cause the oppressors to reevaluate whose side they’re on, repent, and turn to the God of Israel to be numbered with the faithful.

This is a good question and it highlights the weakness in narrative theology. I think the story of Israel is the best way to explain the meaning of the bible texts, and applaud Andrew for getting closer to the meaning of the writings than more orthodox theologians. However, it also highlights why it is impossible to derive meaning from those texts today.

its actually kind of horrifying to think that all those people in Jerusalem were starved, burned and tortured to achieve some sort of grand theological corporate purpose. We don’t think that cities today are bombed as some collective punishment from a deity because we think of people as individuals, which wasn’t the case in antiquity. Did the individual Jews all deserved to be crucified and starved to death? I don’t think so. But that’s probably what a lot of people thought 2,000 years ago.

Paul, it’s a very sane point to make. A few considerations…

If the story of Israel is the best way to explain the meaning of the Bible texts, we have to accept, I think, that violence is a pervasive part of that story for theological reasons. If Israel does not obey the voice of the Lord its God, then:

The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young…. They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the LORD your God has given you. (Deut. 28:49-50, 52)

A good part of the Old Testament is directly premised on this assumption—pretty much the whole of the Prophets. Typically salvation is what happens after this sort of catastrophe. We would have completely to reconstruct the Old Testament understanding of salvation if we wanted to erase the “wrath of God”.

Then, of course, there are the explicit texts of terror in the Gospels to deal with, from John the Baptist’s “Every tree… that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”, through to Jesus shocking condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees and his apocalyptic description of the coming tribulation.

Yes, the Jewish War was horrifying—quite properly “hellish”. But it happened, and one way or another we have to deal with it. If we don’t want to say that YHWH was like the king who sends his troops to destroy the men who rejected his invitation and murdered his servants and to burn their city (Matt. 22:7), don’t we have to assume that he just stood by and watched? Surely we have to accept the fundamentally Jewish conviction that their God was somehow actively involved in the whole thing.

I think it makes a lot of sense to see AD 70 as bringing to an end the covenant arrangement that threatened disobedience with destruction and exile. Jesus brings Israel’s story to an end according to the terms of the covenant. But the overthrow of pagan Rome was expected to happen not by invasion and war but through the testimony of early churches. The story moves on.

So it seems to me that if we are going to be honest, we have to tell the story the way it was told. There may be ways of stating things that mitigate the horror to an extent, but the only Jesus we have is the one who believed that his people were on a broad road leading to destruction because of their sin but who offered a narrow and painful way that would lead to the life of the age to come.

Whether people 2000 years ago thought that individual Jews deserved to be crucified and starved to death I don’t know. But that’s how history works. It’s not neat and tidy.

Andrew:

There is a difference between what people thought and what is. In antiquity, people thought that the fate of nations was connected to the whims of deities. They were wrong, and there is no reason to think that is true today or that we should credit their ideas as true back then.

Agreed, but a narrative-historical hermeneutic, I think, has to work with how the story was told by the original communities. We don’t retell the story for them just to make it more palatable for the modern reader. It is part of the story that people at the time thought that political events were determined by the gods. But equally, we now narrate our involvement in the story on our terms, which partly means that we express our ambivalence about scripture as a normative text. We simply don’t see the world the same way. The truth is as much to do with the telling as with the correspondence between text and reality. 

What is our involvement in the story? I used to think that way, but I just don’t see it any more. The Bible reflects what people of a different era thought. Their view reflected their inaccurate and limited knowledge of the natural world. It’s interesting to know from a historical point of view, and important to know that the modern cultural interpretations put on the Bible by fundamentalists don’t hold up to scrutiny, but why would I take it to heart and define the modern world by this?

There are two ways to involve ourselves in the story. We can try to live in it, as though nothing has changed. Or we can try to live after it, in narrative-historical continuity with it, in a world that has moved on—but on the understanding that we have inherited the promises made to Abraham via the story that has been told. He will be our God, we will be his people.

But there is no escaping the faith component—we believe that the living God raised his Son from the dead and gave him supreme authority for the sake of this people. If we can’t believe that, then it’s simply not our story any more.

Knowing how wrong they were about their assumptions, and even how our view of morality has changed (if God caused Jerusalem to be sacked, isn’t he malevolent?) why would I believe that we have assumed the promise to Abraham? Why would I want to assume that promise? I don’t want to inherit Israel. Sorry to be flippant, but it kinda sucks to be there, if you read the news.

Andrew,

Your quote of Paul, where he states:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Rom 8:1–2)

Question: Do you see the “death” that Paul mentions here as merely physical death and independent from some other death that he may refer to throughout his other Epistles? I notice Paul has this death linked to the law. Actually, now I’m wondering if you see Paul’s reference to “law” as a reference to Israel’s “Law” (Mosaic Law) too.

-Rich

Yes, I take “law” to be the Jewish Law. My understanding is that in Paul’s view the Law could not at this moment guarantee life—in fact, it could only condemn Israel to destruction. This is, in the first place, a new life in the Spirit in the here and now, but in the context of Romans 8 I think he must also have in view a resurrection life for the martyrs, in that not even death can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Tangentially, again, sorry, but I saw this recently and thought it worth an airing. John Goldingay, prior to the publication of Do We Need the New Testament, did a St John’s video on the same topic (here http://tinyurl.com/y4s7k2xc)

About ten minutes in he reverses but does not improve the populist idea by saying that the Old Testament is about the God of Love and Jesus introduces the God of Wrath. Jesus introduces Hell into the Bible. “Until Jesus came came there wasn’t going to be any resurrection” He dodges the implication, even though it is apparent. Jesus’ resurrection is in some way the source of both the later heaven and the later hell.

But this is Goldingay, for pity’s sake. The go-to man if your latent inner neo-liberal is scared of Brueggemann. Not sure if I am hoping for any comments here, but a reaction might be interesting!

Very surprising. He misses the opportunity to accommodate Gehenna to the Old Testament—to argue that Jesus says nothing about this “judgment” that is not already in the Old Testament.

In his commentary on Daniel he interprets the resurrection of Daniel 12:2 figuratively, comparing it to Psalms where “supplicants may pray for their own vindication and rescue from the realm of death, and for the exposure and punishment of people who have attacked them”. So at least he’s consistent on that score. But this is a resurrection to renewed historical life, not to a heavenly existence—that’s certainly a novelty that is introduced with the resurrection of Jesus, albeit on a temporary basis.