Answers to questions about hermeneutics, history, and hell

This is an attempt to answer an assortment of questions sent to me a few weeks back by someone who does not profess to be a theologian but who clearly gets my basic argument about reading the New Testament from the limiting perspective of Jesus and the early community of those who believed that he had been raised from the dead. I have abbreviated—and edited—some of the questions, but hopefully the point is clear enough.

1. Since the book of Revelation is written in such symbolic language, do you think the Idealists’ way of reading as the battle between truth and falsehood throughout history is viable?

The problem with endorsing any idealist reading is that as soon as we disconnect the text from its historical context, we can make it mean more or less whatever we like. Which “idealist” reading do we choose: anti-Catholic, Hegelian, Marxist, neo-Nazi, liberationist, humanist? Obviously texts—or the stuff that makes up texts—get recycled in this way all the time, whether we like it or not, but I think that the church needs to narrow the range of interpretive options for the sake of theological coherence.

The historical reading is not singular, by any means, and it is not easy. But it is the most honest and most relevant method we have for reducing the interpretive disorder that is the legacy of the post-Reformation fission of theological interests. I would also argue that it is crucial for the continuing credibility of Christian witness that we refocus on history all the way through—from the Jewish-historical outlook of the New Testament, to the apocalyptically foreseen conversion of the Greek-Roman world, to the complex and ambiguous history of the church, to the enormous crisis of relevance in the modern era.

2. Do you think that the story continuing after the NT period can be expressed locally? … There doesn’t seem to be a global story to tell.

There is a lot of historical re-appraisal going on in the West at the moment, largely on account of the Black Lives Matter movement. There is a populist dimension to it that may do more harm than good, but the re-appraisal needs to be done. History is not innocent.

It seems to me that the narrative-historical method requires the church to do something similar—to reassess critically the story of the church, from the overthrow of Babylon the great to, let’s say, the emergence of modern evangelicalism, which is the context that we are mostly familiar with.

Global Christianity is certainly now an extremely diversified phenomenon, consisting of multiple regional subplots, running on different time-scales in different directions. A couple of considerations, however, suggest that we may still speak usefully of a single coherent narrative.

First, with few exceptions, global Christianity is the product of European Christendom, which was the direct and intended outcome of the New Testament witness. It is the product of European colonial and missionary expansion and shares its strengths and weaknesses.

Secondly, it seems likely that all global expressions of Christianity will sooner or later, one way or another, have to face the immense intellectual and cultural forces that have decimated the church in Europe over the last two hundred years. I suspect that much of the global church is already pursuing the debilitating option of internalising and privatising religious life, which has led to such narcissistic forms of spirituality in the secular West.

3. Will the present day martyrs enjoy the first resurrection? Or has that event happened in history, so that everyone outside of the New Testament historical context must now wait for the second resurrection?

Strictly speaking, the “first resurrection” of the martyrs that John describes in Revelation 20:4-6 belongs exclusively to the ancient context: hostile pagan Rome is defeated by the faithful witness of the persecuted churches, Satan is confined to the abyss, and the martyrs are raised to reign with Christ throughout the rest of human history. John does not envisage further such conflicts, and I think that the limits of his storytelling should be respected.

But this “first resurrection” is the climax, in the biblical storyline, to a sequence of assurances that the righteous who suffer will be vindicated, going back to Daniel’s account of the crisis of Jewish religion provoked by Antiochus Epiphanes. I don’t see why this should change. The prophetic church must always say that those who lose their lives in the service of God and of his Christ will be vindicated. But how and when is not really for us to say. According to John’s schedule it would be at the final judgment, but perhaps God has something else in mind.

4. Do you think that later theological developments beyond the purview of the New Testament are inevitable and in the right direction—first allegorizing the interpretations, then individualizing the narrative?

This requires a difficult act of historical imagination. It was probably inevitable that the church in the Greek-Roman world would forget its Jewish origins and the story about the rule of the God of Israel, which generated the outrageous expectation that his Son would be confessed as Lord by the nations. Ironic, isn’t it? The Jewish hope was fulfilled (cf. Rom.15:12) only by forgetting that this was ever a Jewish hope.

This also meant, of course, that the Jewish texts had to be reinterpreted if they were to be useable in a very different intellectual culture, and allegorisation was the obvious way to do that. I presume that similar cultural pressures in the modern era have driven the narrowing of focus to a story of personal salvation, etc. So to a large degree, it seems to me, patristic, Reformation, and modern evangelical orthodoxies have been imposed on scripture as a matter of historical necessity.

Now, however, I don’t think we have that excuse. Historical criticism is no longer the enemy of Christian witness. On the contrary, it is slowly helping us to recover the Jewish narrative that was forgotten by the church as it migrated westwards. My argument here is that it presents us with a historically plausible reading of the New Testament that will sustain the future “evangelical” witness of the church at the dawn of the Anthropocene better than the old orthodoxies.

5. I think I was hoping that your way of reading the Bible could help people avoid that kind of mentality to focus on serving the one true God and loving people in this life well, but I am not sure that is possible with some kind of Hell still looming at the end.

Let me explain the background to this. My argument about salvation is that it consists, in the New Testament, in saving a people from historical destruction, not in saving individuals from perdition. Jesus—and his followers after his death—put a choice before Israel: continue as a nation down a broad road that would lead, within a generation, to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple; or follow Jesus down a narrow and dangerous path leading to a new corporate existence as God’s covenant people in the age to come. The second option clearly required taking a step of considerable faith, but the assurance was that eventually believers in Jesus would find themselves justified for having believed in this new future. I’ll come back to this.

The secondary salvation of Gentiles from God’s wrath against Greek-Roman paganism was essentially an assimilation to this narrative: Gentiles were saved by the salvation of Israel.

In this respect, the primary obligation that the church has is not to save souls but to serve God as a faithful priestly-prophetic people under changing historical circumstances. If someone chooses—or is chosen—now to become a member of that people, we may still want to say that he or she is “saved” from a self-indulgent, self-destructive materialism, or something like that, to serve the living God. But that is very different from a soteriology of personal salvation from hell and for heaven.

It is the description of historical destruction, first of Jerusalem and the temple, then of the pagan imperial system, that gives us the language of “hell”—notably, Jesus’ fondness for Jeremiah’s image of Jerusalem’s dead being thrown over the walls of the besieged city into the valley of the Son of Hinnom, or Gehenna.

But the questioner is concerned about a perceived emphasis on the “lake of fire,” as a final annihilation of the wicked. I don’t know if I have made too much of that. I see it really as a final restatement, in apocalyptic terms, of the basic existential reality that the wages of sin is death. It is important for two reasons.

First, it underpins the idea of moral accountability, though arguably as much on a social level as a personal one. People are not just “sinners.” They participate, wittingly or unwittingly, in the sins of their age. That is the manner of Paul’s diatribe against the characteristic sins of the “Greek” in Romans 1:18-31.

Secondly, the lake of fire, which is the second death, serves to underline the final sovereignty of the good creator over all that vitiates this world—not personal and social sin only, but also that which is satanic, and ultimately death itself.

6. I am not trying to argue for universalism, but I am not sure there is any difference between people being saved through justification by faith in the traditional sense and people being saved through joining the family of God.

If the concern is to avoid the problem of exclusivism, then, no, that hasn’t really gone away. In fact, it may have come back with a bit of a vengeance. But it’s framed very differently.

The biblical story is all the way through the story of a chosen people in a largely dysfunctional relationship with the God who chose them. They were chosen to serve as a whole nation of priests—as distinct from a priestly caste or professional priesthood—which would mediate between the living creator God and the surrounding nations. They would benefit from the original blessing of creation, and would transmit that blessing to the nations, as long as they were obedient. Mostly, they were not obedient and therefore got into trouble, from which they needed to be saved. The salvation of Israel from the final condemnation of the Law, by the death of Jesus, is part of that story. And so it continues….

The question of justification arises in that narrative context. Justification is not a forensic abstraction. Abraham was not justified by faith alone. He believed specifically that God would fulfil the promise about his future descendants, and that faith was counted to him as righteousness.

Paul understands justification in the same way. The resurrection of Jesus and his exaltation to the right hand of God as Lord and Christ pointed to a radically different future, first for his own people, Israel, then for the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē. His argument to the Jews in the synagogues was that their half-hearted and somewhat hypocritical adherence to Torah would not guarantee them a share in this new future, in the rule of their God over the nations. Rather, it was those who believed that YHWH had given this future rule to his Son as his heritage (cf. Ps. 2:7-9) who would eventually be justified. In simple terms, they would be proved right by events, and so would naturally inherit this new political-religious order.

My argument would then be that we face much the same dilemma today, at least in the secular West, but probably also globally. Do we believe that the church has a future? It’s a divisive question. Many people are leaving the church, or are not joining the church, because they do not believe that it has a future. I think that events will prove them wrong and that, conversely, those who engage constructively and faithfully in the current re-formation of the church will be proved right, will be justified by our faith in the God of history who has chosen a people to function as a priesthood on his behalf, under difficult historical conditions. The exclusivism in that is unavoidable.

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Geoff Leslie | Tue, 04/27/2021 - 12:09 | Permalink

I like that last question and its answer. That is preachable, it is a cause one could live for. Keep the small church going, the home group, the table church. God will use them to rebuild the future in the post-apocalypse. They will ‘live by their faithfulness’, as Habbakuk and Paul put it.