Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

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

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - 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

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

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) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

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

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Kevin DeYoung - Why Evangelicals Think They Need Hell

Kevin DeYoung, Rob Bell, and the argument about hell


Andrew Perriman
Monday 28 February 2011

I said that I would come back to what Kevin DeYoung has to say about Rob Bell and hell. To his credit, DeYoung refrains from commenting on Rob Bell’s unpublished book Love Wins: Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, and promises not to pick a fight over it when it eventually comes out. But he takes the opportunity, in the meantime, to remind us why we need a doctrine of divine wrath and eternal punishment. The eight-part argument he puts forward is excerpted from the book that he wrote with Ted Kluck, Why We’re Not Emergent. I think he’s wrong, one way or another, on every point. I’ve listed the headings below with brief commentary.

First, we need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism.”

When Paul reasoned with the Roman governor Felix “about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25), he no doubt meant to impart a sense of urgency to his message, but this “coming judgment” cannot be equated with our notion of “hell”. It is likely that at the forefront of Paul’s mind was the coming judgment on Israel, and perhaps beyond that the thought of a judgment on the Greek-Roman world. Even if we suppose that he is thinking of a resurrection of all the dead and a final judgment such as we find in Revelation 20:4-6, there is no basis for introducing a doctrine of eternal punishment into the argument.

Second, we need God’s wrath in order to forgive our enemies.”

The “wrath” of God in scripture always—I repeat, always—refers to some historical event or process by which a people or a nation or a civilization is “judged”. It is how the creator God puts matters to right amongst the nations. In Romans 12:19 the quotation “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” comes from the Song of Moses, where it speaks of a day when God will vindicate his people and defeat their enemies (Deut. 32:35-36). Paul’s argument is the same: there will be a day—not an end of days—when God will vindicate the suffering Roman churches and defeat their enemies (see my book, The Future of the People of God, 146). It is also worth noting that Paul does not speak here about forgiving their enemies, though no doubt he would have urged that; he speaks of not taking revenge against their enemies.

Third, we need God’s wrath in order to risk our lives for Jesus’ sake.”

This one DeYoung gets basically right—at least as far as the outlook of the New Testament is concerned: “The radical devotion necessary to suffer for the word of God and the testimony of Jesus comes, in part, from the assurance we have that God will vindicate us in the end.” But we have to insist that “wrath” is not a final and absolute judgment against all humanity. It has to be contextualized historically, it has to be located in the real world; and I think that there must be some doubt about how we do this—and even whether we should do it—beyond the eschatological horizon of the judgment of the pagan world that is so climactic for the New Testament.

Fourth, we need God’s wrath in order to live holy lives.”

Again, wrath is not a final judgment, and the final judgment in the New Testament does not consign people to eternal conscious suffering. The final judgment on human sinfulness is death or destruction. The doctrine of hell as eternal punishment is simply wrongexegetically wrong—and should be expunged from our vocabulary. That is not to say, however, that we should not be motivated by the prospect of being excluded from the renewal of creation on account of the things we have either done or not done.

Fifth, we need God’s wrath in order to understand what mercy means.”

The catastrophic judgment on Israel in AD 70 may well have helped some Jews, prospectively or retrospectively, to learn the meaning of mercy—it sounds a little perverse, but it is a very biblical idea. In the same way the general wretchedness and futility of human existence may help us to grasp the significance of the mercy of God towards those who turn their backs on the old creation in order to belong to the new. But if we are to say that people today are “objects of wrath”, it can only be because we are convinced, prophetically, that our culture or civilization faces a coming catastrophe analogous to the overthrow of Babylon or of pagan Rome. That may well be the case, but it has nothing to do with hell.

Sixth, we need God’s wrath in order to grasp how wonderful heaven will be.”

The proper antithesis to invoke here is not the one between hell and heaven but the one between death and life, between destruction and the renewal of creation. Hell, as popularly understood, is simply a misconception; scripture does oppose heaven and hell in this way, as final metaphysical alternatives. What we need is a sense of the awfulness of sin, corruption, decay, and death in order to grasp how wonderful God’s new heavens and new earth will be.

Seventh, we need the wrath of God in order to be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters.”

DeYoung offers here a fundamental misreading of Matthew 25:31-46, which describes a judgment of the nations according to how they react to the presence of Jesus’ suffering disciples in their midst, not a judgment of believers according to how they have treated the poor, as DeYoung assumes. There are plenty of good biblical ways to motivate Christian action towards social justice without waving the sub-biblical and unethical myth of eternal conscious torment in our faces.

Eighth, we need God’s wrath in order to be ready for the Lord’s return.”

This only really restates the gist of most of the previous points: we need the fear of hell for motivational reasons. My view is that such motifs as “wrath of God”, “coming of the Son of man”, and the return of a master to his household have reference to historical realities in the relevant and foreseeable future of the early church. They speak of a judgment on the enemies of Jesus’ followers that will constitute the ending of persecution and the decisive vindication of their faith in Jesus. In addition, the motivational argument is spurious, both theologically and morally—in reality, I suspect that the young, reckless and Reformed movement needs to generate a fear of losing the doctrine of hell in order to prevent people wandering into dangerous emergent territory.

Tim Keller gets a lot right but gets hell badly wrong


Andrew Perriman
Wednesday 02 March 2011

Among the many responses to Kurt Willems’ defence of Rob Bell was a link to an undated article by Tim Keller on “The Importance of Hell” (thank you, Jake). Tim Keller is an outstanding pastor, but his argument about hell seems to be wrong in so many ways—exegetically, logically, theologically, psychologically, possibly even morally… but mainly exegetically. Much of the argument has been covered in recent posts, so I have kept matters reasonably concise and provided links to the relevant material. This is, admittedly, an overworked topic, and I apologize for repeating myself. But it is a good test case for the debate between Reformed and New Perspective theologies, raising important questions about the use of language and the relevance of historical context.

1. Jesus does not teach “hell” if by that we mean a place of unending torment after death

What Matthew 25:31-46 describes is a symbolic judgment of the nations, at a time when the Son of Man will be publicly vindicated, on the basis of how they reacted to the presence of Jesus’ disciples (“the least of these my brothers”) in their midst. It is not a judgment of the dead—that is simply an assumption that we have typically read into the passage. Both “life” and “punishment”, therefore, must be interpreted in socio-political terms, with reference to the continuing existence of the nations following the vindication of the Son of Man and of the early martyr church. There will be those Gentiles who will in some manner share in the “life” of the coming age; there will be others who will be destroyed in the fire of the God’s judgment of the pagan world (cf. Dan. 7:10-11), punished, or excluded from the kingdom.

The “fire of gehenna” (Matt. 5:22; 18:8-9) refers not to a universal hell but to the judgment that Jesus believed was coming upon Israel. It is an image of the massive destruction of life that would result from the Roman invasion of Judea and assault on Jerusalem (cf. Jer. 7:30-33; 19:6-8). Matthew 10:28 addresses the fears of the disciples in the same eschatological context. The image in Mark 9:48 of corpses being consumed in gehenna by worms that do not die and a fire that cannot be quenched derives from Isaiah 66:24. The dead bodies of those who rebelled against YHWH serve as a perpetual reminder to the nations and to the returning exiles of the judgment on Israel. But corpses, of course, do not feel pain. Jesus uses the image to similar effect: it forms part of his warning to the Jews of an analogous judgment to come. Keller’s suggestion that he is speaking of the “‘totaled’ human soul” (italics added) is a fundamental misreading of Jesus’ language.

The image of an “outer darkness” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” describes the exclusion of rebellious Israel from the renewed people of God. The point in Matthew 25:30 is that “worthless” disciples will find themselves in the same category when Jesus is eventually vindicated.
Keller is right to draw attention to the frequency and prominence of these motifs in Jesus’ teaching. And if we changed the unbiblical word “hell” for “Hades” or gehenna or the “desolation” of Jerusalem or such like, and made some other contextual adjustments, his concluding paragraph would make reasonably good sense:
We must come to grips with the fact that Jesus said more about hell than Daniel, Isaiah, Paul, John, Peter put together. Before we dismiss this, we have to realize we are saying to Jesus, the pre-eminent teacher of love and grace in history, “I am less barbaric than you, Jesus—I am more compassionate and wiser than you.” Surely that should give us pause! Indeed, upon reflection, it is because of the doctrine of judgment and hell that Jesus’ proclamations of grace and love are so astounding.

2. We don’t need an unbiblical doctrine of hell to show us that we are dependent on God for everything

To be apart from God in scripture is not to be consigned to hell but to be excluded from the people of God—from that community which has recovered something of the original blessing of creation, in which the creator dwells through his Spirit. It is quite possible to argue that there is no “life” that is truly human away from the presence of God without invoking the threat of eternal torment after death. Death itself is the ultimate banishment from the presence of the life-giving creator.

What Paul describes in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12 is specifically, I would argue, a judgment on the persecutors of the early church: “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you” (1:6). It is, therefore, a restatement of Jesus judgment of the sheep and the goats. It results in the destruction of a culture, the exclusion of violent paganism—and of violent pagans—from the presence of God. The language is apocalyptic, but the thought is entirely in keeping with Old Testament texts which speak of YHWH’s preservation of his people and the defeat of their enemies.

3. The argument that hell is self-chosen is fallacious

Keller constructs an antithesis between choosing God as master and choosing autonomy. Those who choose to be “their own Saviors and Masters” are really choosing all the psychological evils that come from being “self-centered, self-absorbed, self-pitying, and self-justifying”—and therefore, so the argument goes, they are choosing hell as a final destination. But people who choose not to submit themselves to Jesus as Lord and Saviour are not choosing hell—you cannot choose something that you don’t believe in. Paul argues in Romans 1:18-32 that idolatry—we might perhaps include self-idolatry—leads to sexual immorality and wickedness, but he does not suggest that pagans thereby choose the wrath of God. In any case, the wrath of God is not what we mean by hell. It refers to some “historical event or process by which a people or a nation or a civilization is ‘judged’” (see Kevin DeYoung, Rob Bell, and the argument about hell).

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus addresses the precarious condition of wealthy Jews facing eschatological judgment. In context it does not speak to the whole of humanity, though it has a conventional moral core to it and can easily be recycled. Jesus asserts that it is the poor and marginalized in Israel who will be restored to the “bosom of Abraham”; the wealthy scribes and Pharisees, who have turned a deaf ear to the Law and the Prophets, will suffer the punishment of the gehenna of fire. In the end, it is only a parable. It is no more an argument for hell than the parable of the treasure in the field is an argument for buying metal detectors.

4. The doctrine of hell is not “the only way to know how much Jesus loved us and how much he did for us”

Jesus took upon himself the punishment that was Israel’s. That punishment was death or destruction on a Roman cross, prefiguring the horrendous slaughter and destruction that the nation would suffer at the hands of the Romans. Jesus did not suffer the post-mortem torments of hell, whether for Israel for anyone else. It is purely speculative—actually it is purely unbiblical—to suggest that when Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34), “he was experiencing hell itself”, unless Keller means that metaphorically, which I doubt. Jesus invokes Psalm 22, which tells quite a different story about the anguish of Israel’s king when encompassed by his enemies. Keller’s argument about the metaphysics of extreme suffering is worthy of Mel Gibson and is quite unnecessary. We know that Jesus loved us because he died for us. Death is quite bad enough, thank you.

Addendum: I still understand Jesus' statement on God's forsaking him in terms of hell, but when possible we can explore this subject some further. The point that Perriman is making here is the necessity for hermenuetical re-contextualization, or re-framing, of all (systematic) theologies into non-evangelic terms, including the evangelic teachings on hell itself, which I heartily support.... And by association, we may expand this concept to any Christian denomination, sect, or movement's de-framing of centric doctrines to their "faith" beliefs, thus limiting any proper understanding of biblical doctrines "lost in relativized interpretation".


The Biblical Doctrine of Hell 2

In Perriman's first article, The Biblical Doctrine of Hell 1 (http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2011/06/biblical-doctrine-of-hell.html), he 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, etc (see my introductory review for further observations)....

...To this I would like to add that I appreciate Perriman's further arguement below for separating God's eschatological-apocalyptic judgments from the natural order of decay and ruin found in a world under the influence of sin as seen in natural and man-made events. (As described in Kyle Roberts article on divine providence, http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2011/03/tsunamis-or-why-im-no-longer-calvinist.html). Creation has an imbued sin problem that is its own judgment.

As well as Perriman's association of the people of God (the church) as God's newest salvific era recepients who are protected by God's grace and from divine apocalyptic judgments to be delivered to a wicked world "un-renewed" by Jesus. (Perhaps not from the effects of the Tribulation, dependent upon one's eschatological order of events - and in keeping with Perriman's OT analogies - but from very hell itself, is certain).

And so, I think he makes an important distinction between OT v. NT corporate salvific entities while realising that the people of God  I would call "God's remnant" are ever preserved from the death of hell, which is its own judgment upon the wicked (cf. my introductory observations in http://relevancy22.blogspot.com/2011/04/in-comparison-to-timothy-kellers-very.html).

Hell on earth and the problems of evangelical dualism (among other things)

Andrew Perriman
The Old Testament was physically oriented, while the New Testament was spiritually oriented. The OT physical emphasis on the temple, priesthood, sacrifices, feasts, etc. Foreshadowed the NT spiritual realities of those things. Same words, different application.
The second is roughly that we get into all sorts of moral and theological difficulties if we extend the argument about “hell on earth” and try to interpret “violent and destructive events like wars, famines, and perhaps natural disasters” today as acts of divine judgment.

The first argument I disagree with because it presupposes a dualism that is alien to biblical thought. There is some force to the second, but I’m not sure that we are theologically obliged to extrapolate from the particular biblical narrative about judgment and salvation.

It is certainly true that Jesus translated much of the symbolism of Israel’s political-religious existence into other terms. At a time of eschatological crisis he reconfigured Israel around himself and his own exceptional vocation rather than around the temple in Jerusalem and the hope of an earthly Davidic dynasty. But I would argue, nevertheless, that it is a standard mistake of modern theologies—such as much current evangelical theology—to think that the physical structures of the Old Testament are simply and comprehensively spiritualized in the New Testament.

The a-historical dualism implicit in this argument lies at the heart of many of the shortcomings of modern evangelicalism—not least the difficulty that it has in integrating social justice into its life and witness.

The New Testament does not spiritualize the physical temple. It puts forward a replacement for it and to some extent constructs that replacement typologically. Why was a replacement needed? Because God was about to destroy the temple and Jerusalem as an act of final judgment against a rebellious nation. Would this be a pleasant experience? No, it would be accompanied by the full horrors of invasion, siege, disease, famine, and slaughter. The Jews, in Jesus’ opinion, would do better to tear out an eye or cut off a limb than suffer this terrible fate—when thousands of corpses would be thrown into the valleys around Jerusalem for want of space to bury them in the besieged city.

This is still an outworking of the Old Testament story, which is why the Old Testament language and conceptuality remain directly relevant. What Jeremiah predicted for sixth century Jerusalem Jesus predicted for first century Jerusalem—and Josephus relates that this was exactly the outcome of the siege:
Now the seditious at first gave orders that the dead should be buried out of the public treasury, as not enduring the stench of their dead bodies. But afterwards, when they could not do that, they had them cast down from the walls into the valleys beneath. (Jos. War 5.518)
So given the fact that Jesus was not less than a Jewish prophet, that he spoke of judgment against Jerusalem in language taken from the Old Testament prophets, and that 40 years later Jerusalem fell to the armies of Rome in exactly the same manner that it had fallen to the Babylonian armies 600 years earlier, it seems to me that the onus lies with modern interpreters to show that he intended his words to be understood spiritually or metaphysically—that is, in a manner quite out of keeping with Jewish thought—and not with reference to the fate of historical Israel.

At the heart of the story that is being told is the concrete historical existence of a people, and there is always a political dimension to the existence of a people, despite the best attempts of modern rationalistic theology to eliminate this aspect.

What Jesus does through his death and resurrection is ensure, in the first place, the survival of a people descended from Abraham. The means of salvation has changed—through faithfulness, suffering and death, rather than through loyalty to torah or through political or military strength; and because the means of salvation has changed, the make-up of the community has changed—a people called to the same faithfulness in the power of the Spirit. But the physical arena of the church’s existence in relation to the nations remains the same.

Moreover, the political narrative does not stop there. This renewed and transformed people finds itself profoundly at odds with the pagan world, which it challenges with its message of a coming “judgment”. I think that the New Testament—Paul in particular—continues to draw on Old Testament language and conceptuality in order to construct a hopeful eschatological narrative for the suffering churches scattered across the Greek-Roman oikoumenē or “empire”. The martyrs of the early church died as a result of political disobedience.

It seems to me that this is all a very natural and coherent outworking of the Old Testament narrative, which, historically speaking, aims at the eventual victory of Israel’s God over the gods of the surrounding empires (Is. 45; Phil. 2:6-11; Rev. 19). God judges Jerusalem through the agency of a pagan oppressor; he restores and renews his people through Jesus; and he “judges” the pagan world against the benchmark of a righteous alternative humanity in Christ.

But that is a particular and limited narrative trajectory. It does not mean that all catastrophic events, man-made or otherwise, count as particular judgments of God, beyond the very general notion that destruction, decay and disintegration are consequences of human rebellion.

I rather think that the church should learn how to warn contemporary society about the consequences of its idolatries, of its obsessions. The emphasis there has to be on learningI think we still fall some way short of the imagination and integrity required to bear credible corporate witness to a socio-political alternative to Western consumerist secularism.

But the biblical pattern of judgment on the people of God followed by judgment on the enemies of the people of God (wrath against the Jew, then wrath against the Greek), has been broken by the fact that the church is no longer under the condemnation of the Law. God’s people will not again be “destroyed” in the way that first century Jerusalem was “destroyed”, because we are subject to grace and not to Law.

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.

Whatever happened to the People of God?


Andrew Perriman
Sunday 29 May 2011

One of the ways in which emerging theologies have attempted to correct the individualistic bias of much modern Reformed and evangelical theology has been to stress the cosmic dimension to salvation. So, for example, J.R. Woodward, whom I greatly regret having missed when he passed through Dubai last year, started off a recent post on the “key elements of personal salvation” with the words: “While the Good News of Jesus Christ is both personal and cosmic in nature….”

This emphasis on the cosmic dimension, which relies principally on a few New Testament texts that speak of the final transformation of all creation (cf. Rom. 8:20-22; Rev. 21:1-4), is a substantial improvement on soteriologies that are narrowly focused on the journey that a person makes from conversion to his or her eventual arrival in heaven. There is much social and ethical good that can be drawn from the vision of a world made new. In Love Wins Rob Bell speaks of the essentially earthy and humane vision of the life of the age to come that is found in the Old Testament prophets:
…Jesus and the prophets lived with an awareness that God has been looking for partners since the beginning, people who will take seriously their divine responsibility to care for the earth and each other in loving, sustainable ways. They centered their hopes in the God who simply does not give up on creation and the people who inhabit it. The God who is the source of all life, who works from within creation to make something new.
But in both J.R. Woodward’s opening clause and in Rob Bell’s rich account of the life of the age to come a crucial biblical component has gone missing. The biblical story does not say that “God has been looking for partners since the beginning”. It says that God chose a people in Abraham to be a “new creation”. Bell’s characterization of this people as partners who would “take seriously their divine responsibility to care for the earth and each other in loving, sustainable ways” is conceptually anachronistic in the first place, but we may let that pass. The more significant problem is that it gives the impression that God was looking for well-disposed, eco-sensitive volunteers. That seems to me rather badly to misrepresent the place of a people bound by covenant to the creator in the biblical story.

This has a bearing, moreover, on how we understand the “good news” of Jesus Christ and the locus of salvation in the biblical story—and I think it helps us to see how emerging theologies and New Perspective approaches to the New Testament still fail to connect. You would think that the personal-cosmic spectrum would encompass pretty much everything that needs to be said about salvation. In fact, it collapses—perhaps unintentionally—the structure of a biblical theology by circumventing the role of a chosen people.

So we have Rob Bell’s God looking for individuals to participate in the work of creational renewal, and we have a “good news” of salvation that has no reference to the community to which it was originally proclaimed, namely first-century Israel. There was a similar oversight in Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change.

Jesus did not come to save people from their sins. He came to save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). The gospel was a public and political announcement to a nation. That is a very different type of story with a very different type of outcome. The story of salvation in the New Testament is, at its heart, the story of the salvation of a people from the “final” destruction of the impending Jewish War—a salvation which, through the over-abounding grace of God, led to the inclusion of Gentiles in the community and the eventual victory of the church over its pagan enemies.

This national-level narrative provides the basis for—and certainly the starting-point for—whatever we want to say about both personal salvation and cosmic salvation. On the one hand, individuals, in different ways, participate in the story of the people of God. On the other, the story of the people of God generates the hope that in the end all creation will be renewed.

The problem here is not merely exegetical. By disregarding the corporate dimension, the emerging model excludes, or at least greatly reduces, the difficult sphere of practised justice. A significant layer of cosmic and humanitarian concern is added to the outlook of the individual, legitimizing the engagement of Christians in social action. But this does not fundamentally change the structure of things: we still have a very “modern” theology organized around the needs and potentials of individual participants in secular society.

We can understand the emerging church’s reluctance, on the one hand, to perpetuate the failings of the old institutional church, and the desire, on the other, to recover some degree public credibility, some ethical integrity. But this cannot be achieved at the expense of diminishing the concrete life and witness of the church as community—indeed, as a place where “new creation” is practised and not merely talked about.


Addendum: Knowing Rob Bell and being acquainted with both his ministry and teaching I wish to add that Bell does teach the concepts of "community" or rather, "participatory communities" in the message and ministry of God in the reformation of the world and mankind. And, as a new investigator/acquirer of the message of emergent Christianity (or as someone who would like to make its updated message mine own in some way), it is my understanding that though we live in an age of individualism, the bible is first and foremost a community message that must be participated in as a community (unlike our current age's focus). However, I imagine a good sociologist will tell you that it takes both/and - that is, its takes an individual to lead a community, but it takes a community to enrich an individual.  Thus, kudos to Andrew Perriman is his similar assessments based upon his world travels and the worldly communities that he has participated in.


Hermeneutics, in pictures

Andrew Perriman
Hermeneutics explores how we read, understand, and handle texts, especially those written in another time or in a context of life different from our own. Biblical hermeneutics investigates more specifically how we read, understand, apply, and respond to biblical texts.1
At the simplest level, therefore, hermeneutics examines the process of interpretation that goes on when a text is read; it explores what happens between text and reader.

When we read contemporary texts—newspapers, novels, works of systematic theology, for example—the world of the text, which includes the author, overlaps to a large degree with the world of the reader, which includes the reader’s relatives and friends, the books on her bookshelf, her favourite movies, and so on. This makes interpretation a relatively straightforward process, though by no means a fool-proof one.

In the case of a text such as the Bible, however, which has its origins in a historical context far removed from that of the modern reader, interpretation also has to take into account a significant hermeneutical distance between the world or horizon of the text and the world or horizon of the reader. The reader may understand the translated words on the page, but much of what is implied in or presupposed by the text remains invisible. Much contemporary reading of scripture works on the assumption that neither the world of the text nor the world of the reader nor the distance between the two has any great bearing on interpretation.

We will then find that postmodernism confirms what in any case should be obvious, not least to church-based readers of the Bible, that generally speaking the ancient biblical text has been read and interpreted by diverse communities of readers, which embody diverse interpretive traditions.

Unfortunately the space between the reader and the text is never transparent or unimpeded. Interpretation is always hindered, to a lesser or greater degree, by tradition, prejudice, presuppositions, ignorance, and the laziness of the reading community. Hermeneutics tries to find ways to overcome these obstacles to good interpretation.

As a general field of study hermeneutics naturally overlaps with a broad spectrum of other disciplines, because each part of the interpretive process may be subjected to different types of analysis. We need to understand the literary character of the text and the context in which it was produced; we need to understand the complex process of interpretation; and we need to understand the various pressures that reading communities are under to bully the text into saying things it doesn’t really want to say.

The inescapable polarity of text and reader or between text and reading community has a bearing on the question of where authority in interpretation is perceived to lie. Traditionally the assumption has been that the author and the author’s context determine the meaning of the text. Beginning with Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), however, biblical hermeneutics has increasingly had to take account of the argument that it is the reader who determines the meaning of the text. Hermeneutics has to work out how to balance these competing claims to authority.

Finally, hermeneutics may be interested in how reading communities such as churches, home groups, mission organizations, and even academic fellowships respond to the interpretation of the text, if they do so at all. Action is itself a form of interpretation.

  • 1. A.C. Thiselton, Hermeneutics: An Introduction (Eerdmans, 2009), 1.

Was the gospel told first to the serpent?

Andrew Perrimen
Thursday 02 June 2011

I was listening to a talk the other night by someone from church arguing for a literal six days creation. I think I heard somewhere in the course of his defence of the literal truthfulness of Genesis 1-11 a statement to the effect that we have a prophecy about the future salvation of humanity and defeat of satan through Jesus in Genesis 3:15.
I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.
Whether I heard it or not, it’s a familiar enough “evangelical” argument (see, for example, John Piper’s sermon on “The Fall of Satan and the Victory of Christ”), and it provides an opportunity to consider the widely held view that God puts meanings in texts for us to find that weren’t originally there—or at least weren’t apparent to the original readers of the text. This is one of the nine theses of “The Scripture Project” listed by Ellen Davis and Richard Hays in their book The Art of Reading Scripture:
4. Texts of Scripture do not have a single meaning limited to the intent of the original author. In accord with Jewish and Christian traditions, we affirm that Scripture has multiple complex senses given by God, the author of the whole drama. (2)
The argument that Genesis 3:15 speaks in any sense of a future victory of Israel’s messiah over satan is simply untenable. The verse describes a continuing, iterated conflict between the descendants of the woman and the descendants of the serpent. Given the role that the serpent played in the garden, it seems reasonable to conclude that this cursing of the relationship between humanity and serpents has in view not merely the dangers of walking in the fields barefoot but the persistent, destructive human aspiration to attain a godlike status. That appears to be roughly the scope of the original meaning. It does not really sound like good news.

There is apparently some extra-biblical evidence that Jews in the third century BC were expecting a victory of the messiah over the serpent satan. But there is no reinterpretation of this verse in the New Testament itself. The nearest we have is a doubtful allusion in Romans 16:20, but the language is quite different and it is God, not any “man”, who will crush (syntripsei) satan. Arguably, a text such as Deuteronomy 28:7 LXX provides the more appropriate background: “May the Lord your God hand over your enemies who have risen against you, when they have been crushed (syntetrimmenous) before you…”. Piper claims that Hebrews 2:14 also alludes to Genesis 3:15, but how he arrived at that conclusion is beyond me. In fact, we have to wait until Justin and Irenaeus in the second century AD before we find the thought that Genesis 3:15 constitutes a protoevangelium. As Gordon Wenham comments:
While a messianic interpretation may be justified in the light of subsequent revelation, a sensus plenior, it would perhaps be wrong to suggest that this was the narrator’s own understanding. Probably he just looked for mankind eventually to defeat the serpent’s seed, the powers of evil.1
But then the question has to be asked: Is the messianic interpretation justified by later revelation? Do we have good grounds not simply for finding a sensus plenior—an extra level of meaning—in the Genesis text but for distorting or disregarding what is actually said? If Jesus or some New Testament writer had unequivocally attributed messianic significance to this verse, it would be different matter. Otherwise, what reason do we have for supposing that God, as “author of the whole drama”, meant the statement to be understood, in the light of subsequent developments, as a reference to humanity’s future redemption?