A friend rang this morning wanting to know whether the thousands who died, and no doubt are still dying, in the earthquake that devastated the region around Gaziantep and Aleppo last week are now continuing to suffer in some far worse post mortem state of torment or alienation. It may seem the wrong question to be asking in the face of such immense pain and grief, but perhaps we can think of it as a way of opening—fractionally—a theological window on the catastrophe.
Reconnecting the personal and the political
The language of gospel, salvation, eternal life, Gehenna, etc., in the New Testament is not personal primarily but social and political. It is a modern anomaly that we think of judgment and salvation only in individualistic terms. The biblical storyline, apart from a few chapters at the beginning and one or two at the end, centres on the experience of a people, Israel. In the New Testament period—that is, in the first part of the first century—this people faced a terminal crisis, foreseen by John the Baptist, Jesus of Nazareth, and no doubt many others. This set the stage for the “gospel” message.
The “good news” was two-edged: on the one hand, the God of Israel was about to judge this “crooked generation” of Judeans; on the other, through Jesus of Nazareth he was preparing a path of salvation for those who were willing to take it. The judgment of Gehenna would be the destruction and slaughter of the war against Rome, corpses thrown into the Valley of the son of Hinnom during the siege of Jerusalem (cf. Jer. 7:32; 19:6-7; Josephus, War 5.12.3), and the subsequent exclusion of apostate Israel—cast into outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth—from the future people of the God of Abraham. Salvation would be the life of the Christ-confessing community in the age to come after the age of second temple Judaism.
Individuals, both Jews and Gentiles, certainly had to make personal decisions for or against what the God of Israel was doing, but this was secondary, contingent upon the larger political narrative about the kingdom of God and the presence and standing of God’s people among the nations. In the modern era, notably, perhaps originally for good reason, the personal response has been detached from the political narrative and has been given overriding, indeed exclusive, theological priority. That development is now problematic on many levels. My emphasis on a narrative-historical hermeneutic is, among other things, an attempt to reverse that, to make the personal response again subordinate to a story about what the living God is doing at a critical moment in history.
Life after death
Nothing so far in this account of judgment and salvation has required life after death, in heaven or in hell, other than for Jesus, who was raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God, with a view to his coming rule over the nations.
This, needs to be qualified further, however, in two respects. First, the early Christians believed that those who died in Christ before the public recognition of Jesus’ status, before the confession of Jesus as Lord by the peoples of the Greek-Roman world, before the parousia, would be raised from the dead and would reign with him in glory throughout the coming ages.
Secondly, the author of the book of Revelation at least was of the opinion that there will be a final resurrection of all the dead for judgment—both the mighty and the insignificant (Rev. 20:11-15). They will be judged not according to their belief in Jesus, which is irrelevant at this stage, but according to what they have done. Some will enjoy the life of the new heaven and new earth, which is about to be created. Others will be thrown into the lake of fire, to be destroyed in a second death along with all that is metaphysically evil, including death itself (cf. Rev. 20:10, 14; 21:8).
Why is their belief in Jesus irrelevant at this stage? Belief in Jesus has to do with the salvation or vindication of God’s people in and throughout history. We confess his death, resurrection, and exaltation because these things became the ground for the subsequent life and mission of the church. When there is no more history to deal with, when all that opposes the witness of the priestly-prophetic people of the creator God has finally be overcome, when the last enemy has been destroyed, then our risen and exalted Lord hands back the kingdom so that the one God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
The earthquake and divine judgment
So what are we to say about the “eternal” fate of those who died in the earthquake, great and small, most of whom presumably did not believe in Jesus?
First, we may say categorically that they are not in “hell,” they are not enduring eternal conscious torment, whether understood physically or psychologically. They are simply and tragically dead, through no fault of their own. In biblical terms, from Adam and Eve onwards, the final judgment on the sinfulness common to all humanity is destruction: at the individual level death, however it comes about; at the political level the ruin of cities, the overthrow of régimes, the fall of empires, etc. Paul puts it succinctly: the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). The final destruction in the lake of fire, which must be understood mythically, simply underlines this fundamental existential point. For more on this, please see my published collection of posts Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective (second edition).
Secondly, the Bible does not allow us to regard the earthquake in some more targeted sense as punishment for the sins of those individuals who died. If we want to give theological meaning to an indiscriminate catastrophe on this scale, it has to be done at a social-political level. It is a judgment that exposes reckless social development, criminal collusion between state and developers, deep ethnic divisions and injustices, and so on.
Jesus makes a similar move when he is told about the killing of a number of Galileans in the temple by Pilate’s soldiers:
Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Lk. 13:2–5)
The “all” who will “likewise perish” is not all humanity, it is the current wicked and adulterous generation of Galileans and Judeans. If they do not repent, they will all die, whether by the Roman sword or crushed in the ruins of the city, when one stone is not left standing on another. Those who died when the badly constructed tower collapsed were neither more nor less sinful than anyone else in Jerusalem, but they were implicated in a society that had become hopelessly corrupt and unfit for purpose.
So, while I recognise that this is a hazardous course to take, it seems to me that the church as a prophetic people ought to be able to find the language to say that the living God is present in the earthquake not only to comfort or to inspire heroic action or to heal, but also to expose the folly and venality and hubris of so much human endeavour.
In any case, can we please stop propagating the unbiblical and profoundly unethical idea that the unsaved dead are being tormented endlessly in hell.