According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson
We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord
Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Biblical Doctrine of Hell 1

Perriman argues for the understanding of hell in terms of "immediate and final destruction" of body, soul, spirit from its life-giving Creator God and thus, as final and complete destruction. However, I also sense that he may be willing to forego its "immediacy" in place of a "holding state of action" up until the final judgement by the divine in the Lake of Fire event which then interjects this very same idea of complete and immediate destruction (annihilation) of body, soul and spirit, if I understand him aright. 

I like his argument for corporate (vs. individual) societal judgement - and for locating this societal judgement firstly within history (the OT era under the prophets, and the later-NT era under Jesus as a NT prophet re Jerusalem's later destruction). And then by apocalyptic analogy to a later, larger, entire-world judgment in the parasouia (second coming) and rule of Jesus up to and through the Lake of Fire event, where he then posits a complete annihilation of all things not-God.

So firstly, he understands hell as a historical corporate/societal judgment; and then secondly, as an immediate destruction, or as a incomplete destruction made complete in the Lake of Fire event. It is a different understanding than the traditional or evangelic understandings and I thought to include it thusly.


I set out a while back to write a general piece on the unbiblical doctrine of “hell” as part of a glossary or lexicon of key concepts but got side-tracked. Since then the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s book has prompted extensive reflection on the matter, and it now seems worth providing a rough summary of the position that I have argued for in a number of recent posts. Unfortunately, it has turned out rather longer than intended, but hopefully it will be the last word on the subject of “hell” for a while.

The approach I will take is to differentiate between a baseline position and the three eschatological horizons which, to my mind, provide the forward-looking frame of reference for New Testament thought. This approach reflects an important hermeneutical assumption. The New Testament primarily addresses the condition of peoples and cultures within history rather than the destiny of individuals beyond history. If we approach the New Testament with concerns about the moral or theological rightness of a doctrine of “hell” as “eternal conscious torment” at the forefront of our minds, we are likely to misunderstand what is said about judgment, wrath, punishment, and affliction. Ask the wrong questions and you will get the wrong answers.

The baseline

The starting point is to affirm that there is a baseline of divine—or even existential—judgment on unrighteous and rebellious humanity. It takes the simple but decisive form of destruction, which is a serious enough business. For individuals this is the destruction of death—as Paul puts it, the “wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). For the first generations of humanity, which had “corrupted their way on earth” by violence, it was the destruction of the flood: ‘And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth”’ (Gen. 6:13). The regeneration of humanity that followed the flood could only be described in terms of a new creation: ‘And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”’ (Gen. 9:1).

For societies that defied the creator—at least as far as the Biblical narrative extends—judgment was likely to come, sooner or later, in the form of corporate destruction: famine, disease, war, slaughter, and the devastation of land and cities. The climactic moment in the Old Testament narrative is the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, from which the nation never really recovered. This event is understood not as an accident of history but as an expression of God’s anger against his people because of their incorrigible idolatry and unrighteousness. But it is only a matter of time before the godless and ferocious empire of the Babylonians will be brought to nothing in its turn (cf. Hab. 2:6-20).

The vivid prophetic language in which these events are described already foreshadows the visions of impending judgment that we find in the New Testament. But in Daniel’s symbolic account of the judgment of the fourth beast that makes war against the saints of the Most High and of the transfer of kingdom and authority to “one like a son of man” (Dan. 7), we have an anticipation of the heightened apocalypticism that will give New Testament eschatology its distinctive contours. The point to stress is that in the Old Testament this language always has reference to historical events, seen from the perspective of Israel’s unique existence. It has to be unequivocally demonstrated, therefore, and not merely assumed, that the authors of the New Testament used this language in a fundamentally different sense to speak of post-historical or metaphysical realities. In my view this cannot be demonstrated. The New Testament is as much focused on the historical existence of the people of God as the Old Testament.

The first horizon of the Jewish War

The language and imagery used to describe the intense suffering that will attend divine judgment in the synoptic Gospels has reference to the foreseen disaster of the Jewish War. Jesus’ essential warning to the Jews is that unless they repent they will perish, either struck down by Roman soldiers or crushed under the ruins of Jerusalem (cf. Lk. 13:1-5). But the theological significance of this impending catastrophe is brought out largely through the reworking of Old Testament motifs.

The judgment of gehenna is meant to evoke Jeremiah’s horrifying vision of the dead thrown from the walls of the city into the Valley of the Sons of Hinnom during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem (Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). Other images have the same frame of reference: the burning of the weeds by fire at the close of the age (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43); the discarding of the bad fish (Matt. 13:47-50). The bodies of the unrighteous that are perpetually consumed by worms and fire (Mk. 9:48) are not the dead being consciously tormented in “hell”. They are the unconscious corpses of those who rebelled against YHWH, which remain unburied outside the city as a sign to all of the stark reality of God’s judgment against his people (cf. Is. 66:24).

The “outer darkness”, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, is an image of the exclusion of rebellious Israel from the kingdom of God, from the celebration of the restoration of Israel, from the life of the age to come (cf. Matt. 8:11-12; Matt. 13:47). “Wailing” typically connotes the pained response to judgment (cf. Mic. 7:4 LXX; Is. 30:19; 65:19; Bar. 4:11); the “gnashing of teeth” suggests anger and resentment directed towards the righteous Jew (Ps. 36:12; 34:15-16; 111:9-10 LXX; Sir. 51:3; Acts 7:54).

The story of the rich man who is tormented in Hades while the beggar Lazarus is carried to the bosom of Abraham (Lk. 16:19-31) is best understood as a parable of the reversal of fortune that would accompany the coming crisis of judgment and restoration, when “the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent empty away” (Lk. 1:53). Other than in this passage, hadēs is simply the grave or the place of the dead; in effect, it is a figure for death. When Jesus says that “the gates of Hades” will not prevail against his church, he means that it will not be overcome by death—there is no reference to a “hell” teeming with demons, as in the mythology of much spiritual warfare teaching (Matt. 16:18). The judgment on Capernaum, that it will be brought down to Hades, is simply that it’s population will be destroyed—as, for example, at the time of the Roman invasion (Matt. 11:23).

The second horizon of judgment on the hostile pagan world

While the first horizon of the Jewish War is rather sharply imagined (cf. “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near”: Lk. 21:20), the more distant second horizon is less well defined. Nevertheless, judgment on the “Greek” is not less concretely and historically conceived than judgment on the “Jew”.

In general terms, the Greek-Roman world will be judged—and will experience “tribulation and distress”—on account of its idolatry, immorality, and unjust behaviour (cf. Rom. 2:6-10). This takes an especially intense form in Revelation 14:9-11, where an angel announces that those who worship the beast of an aggressive pagan imperialism will be “tormented with fire and sulphur”. The symbolic language brings to mind Old Testament accounts of the destruction of corrupt cities and nations. Whatever personal torment is experienced must be understood in the context of a decisive judgment on pagan Rome.

The more specific argument in relation to this second horizon is that those who persecuted the churches, prior to the victory of Christ over the pagan gods, will be punished. When God brings the afflictions of these “saints” to an end, he will “repay with affliction those who afflict you”; they will suffer the “punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thess. 1:9). This is not envisaged as a final judgment but as a day within history when Jesus will be revealed as the one who judges the pagan world and his followers vindicated and rewarded for having patiently endured suffering.

When Jesus as Son of Man—as representative of suffering Israel—is publicly vindicated, the nations which failed to attend to the needs of his persecuted disciples will be judged and consigned to the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41, 46). Like the “stream of fire” that issued from the throne of the ancient of days (Dan. 7:10-11), this is a fire that destroys empires and cultures which defy the creator God. Individuals will, of course, suffer the consequences of what happens to their society, but this is not the level at which the apocalyptic story is told.

The third horizon and a final destruction

It is simply a recognition of the force of historical perspective to say that the authors of the New Testament were far more preoccupied with the first two horizons than with the third. Nevertheless, the storyline of the creator who persistently re-creates, which begins with the blessing of Noah, culminates in John’s exceptional vision of a new heaven and new earth. At this moment we also come across a final iteration of the baseline argument—that the inescapable consequence of sin is death. Death and Hades are thrown into the “lake of fire”, which is the “second death”; those whose names are not written in the book of life are thrown into the lake of fire; and “as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death” (Rev. 20:14-15; 21:8). This is not a place of torment, merely of incineration. It is a final destruction of everything that is contrary to the goodness of creation.

No comments:

Post a Comment