Archive for April, 2014

In Matthew 25 Jesus employs the prophetic image of ‘unquenchable fire’, here rendered as ‘eternal fire’. This comes in an extended set of parables in ch.24-25, which portray God’s judgement using a variety of images:

A wicked steward who abuses the servants is cut in pieces.   (24:51)

Nine virgins who get locked out of the wedding feast find the door shut, and the groom says, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’ (25:12)

A slave who did nothing with his master’s wealth is thrown into outer darkness.   (25:30)

And finally the ‘goats’ who never welcomed Messiah’s brothers:

Then the Son of Man will say to those at his left hand,‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…’   And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”     25:41,46

These are parallel parables. (Jewish literature loves saying things in parallel!) Only the last of them mentions fire. The eternal fire is parallel with:

the cutting in pieces 
the shut door and disowning
the outer darkness
eternal punishment

These parallel images all speak of rejection and punishment. They are confronting, designed to provoke a strong reaction. But what reality are they pointing to?


It is important to notice that this set of parables forms the conclusion and climax of Jesus’ teaching ministry in Jerusalem. Here he is summing up his message, in symbolic, story form. This context strongly suggests that the parables are about the same thing his previous teaching was about, especially his teaching in ch.23-24.

Chapter 23 was about the approaching judgement and desolation of Jerusalem. Chapter 24 is on the same theme:

“You see all these temple buildings, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”     24:1

Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.  24:34

This has really been Jesus’ theme since he arrived in the temple back in ch.21. And this is the teaching which these parables in ch.25 are here to illustrate. If we pay attention to what Jesus is interested in talking about here in Jerusalem, we will be skeptical of readings of these concluding parables which have them drifting off and losing focus on his central message.

If this context-directed way of reading is correct, then we expect then that each of these concluding parables will describe the coming judgement on Jerusalem from a different angle, using a variety of imagery. And this includes the ‘sheep and the goats’ story – the one with the ‘eternal fire’ in it. Let’s take a closer look at that parable:


In this particular parable, the focus is on welcome or neglect toward Messiah’s brothers. In Matthew, the ‘brothers’ are Jesus’ disciples, who are sent out and who will suffer on mission. How the brothers are received is the definitive measure for where people stand in the judgement (cf. Matthew 10). Now we get to see that judgement enacted.

Who are those who are implicated in this warning? Who, in Matthew’s gospel, have neglected and abused Messiah and his brothers – and are therefore likely to miss out on the kingdom of God? Jesus has already made this painfully clear:

“The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way…Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit.” The chief priests and the Pharisees…knew he was talking about them.  21:35-45

“The rest of the invitees seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.”    22:6

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.”    23:37

The violent and negligent behaviour of the house of Israel and especially of Jerusalem has been Jesus’ constant theme over the past five chapters. The can be no doubt who is in the cross hairs in this final ‘sheep and goats’ parable: Jerusalem is deeply implicated. 


 What will happen to Jerusalem? In punishment the goats are sent into ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’. In contrast, the sheep ‘inherit the kingdom prepared for them’ (Mat 25:34).

This contrast between the sheep and goats seems quite close to the story in Daniel 7 in which the beast  is judged before the fiery throne of the Ancient of Days:

…the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. Dan. 7:11

But this is also “the time when holy people of the Most High gain possession of the kingdom.” (Dan. 7:22). The fiery judgement of the beast is contrasted with God’s people ‘inheriting the kingdom’.

It’s worth noticing that Daniel 7 is telling a salvation historical story. These scary images represent large-scale realities about God’s people, his enemies, and their ultimate futures.

Jesus’ sheep and goats parable has pretty strong echoes of that scene. But interestingly, in Daniel 7 it seemed that the saints who inherit stood for Israel while the beasts who abused them and were judged for it represented the other nations. Now Jesus turns things on their head: in his parable the abusers of God’s people are found within Israel, and have their headquarters in Jerusalem.

By sending Jerusalem into Daniel’s fire, Jesus is saying that they do not inherit God’s kingdom. When the hour comes for the saints to possess it, that city will be found on the wrong side of the conflict. As Jesus said earlier, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you” (21:43). Being the elect will not excuse them: they have proved themselves enemies of Messiah and will be treated as such. They are not standing with God’s people: they are in the fire with the beast.

Like Daniel, Jesus also is telling a salvation-historical story. Everything here points to the fact that we are in the realm of redemptive history and God’s purposes for the nation. This is big picture stuff, presented using a powerful OT symbol of fiery destruction: “the fire prepared for the devil and his angels”. What will it actually look like in history when Jerusalem is judged and punished? The parable does not break into realist description. Each of these parables maintains the integrity of its symbolic world, as a good parable should! Slaves cut in pieces, and banished into outer darkness, virgins disowned and shut outside. Each in its own way points to the same reality: the end of Jerusalem.

The story no doubt has implications for the other nations. But is about Jerusalem, told in Jerusalem and for Jerusalem, as an warning regarding the many indictments Jesus has just brought against that city.

Those in the habit of reading this parable as a literal description of an individualised afterlife cosmology – I’m afraid they are ignoring both genre and context, and need to pay more attention!


In conclusion: in Matthew Jesus uses the fire imagery of the prophets in much the same way as the prophets did – flexibly, to speak of different aspects of the judgement of Israel. His main innovation is to centre the imagery around himself as Messiah.

Hell 18: Jesus and the fire of God

Posted: April 28, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Does Jesus teach a doctrine of everlasting punishment in hell? The Judaism within which Jesus was operating had a specific ‘judgement’ image – Gehenna – which was not found in their Scriptures, and also a broader set of images – notably including ‘fire’ – which were. What use would Jesus make of this broader tradition?

We should bear in mind that in general Jesus was in the habit of drawing extensively on Scripture imagery, e.g.:

building of unfinished towers, the meek inheriting the land, light on a hill, heaven God’s throne/earth his footstool, flowers and grass of the field, moth and worms consuming, sack cloth and ashes, the righteous shining like the sun,  scattered sheep.

These are all OT images. In fact, Jesus’ teaching is saturated with these metaphors. It is clear that he had inherited a stock of imagery, a symbolic language if you like, from the Hebrew Scriptures and in particular from the prophets. Using it in his teaching was one way for Jesus to signal clearly that he was standing in the tradition of the prophets of old. And one of the central preoccupations of those prophets, one of the major themes which called forth these images, was the idea of God’s judgement.

So when Jesus wished to speak of judgement, he had a ready-made resource of picture-language in which to make his message concrete. Since we are concerned with the doctrine of ‘hell’, we are particularly interested here in Jesus’ use of fire imagery  although we will consider other related metaphors in his teaching.

Given Jesus habit of employing the symbolic language of the prophets, it would be a bit surprising if he did not make use of the key judgement-image, fire. And in fact he returns to this language again and again. Let’s take a look. Starting with Matthew:

John the Baptist described the arrival of Messiah using these terms:

Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire

He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”   Matt 3:10-12

This is the agricultural metaphor so favoured by the prophets. Messiah is the one who comes to clean up the farm with the cleansing fire of God.

Jesus himself gave the fire metaphor this traditional agricultural sense:

“at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”

Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.    Matt. 13:30, 41-42

Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Matt. 7:19

In Matthew, God’s fire is almost always found embedded in highly symbolic territory, such as chains of parables. This should be a clue for us that the image is functioning as a metaphor – a symbol for God’s judgement. Yet it is a metaphor to which Jesus resorts repeatedly.

What does Jesus add to these traditional images? A couple of things: first, he (along with John the Baptist) connects it closely with the messianic language of ‘the son of man.’ In other words, Jesus sources the fire of God in himself. And he (like John) makes the moment of decision or judgement to be much more the present, revealed in how people respond to Messiah’s ministry.

Second, he adds the language of ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth‘ – a phrase not found in Jewish Scripture. This stock phrase recurs throughout Matthew, generally in parables. It does not belong to any particular judgement image, but rather can be ‘tacked on’ to various images, such as outer darkness, being cut in pieces, and here, being burned up in fire. Thus it functions not as a description of one particular place, but rather as an intensifier of whatever is being described.

In the Jewish Scriptures, teeth gnashing was a sign of malice, not torment. It is hard to be sure what it meant to Jesus and his hearers, but in context with ‘weeping’ it seems likely to have morphed somewhat into an image of grief. Jesus uses it to emphasise that the experience of judgement will be real and terrible.

What Jesus does not add to these prophet images is the individualised sense which we are in the habit of reading in his words. Like John the Baptist, like the prophets of old, Jesus words of warning are explicitly directed at the nation, and concern the future of Israel. Jesus is clearing up the farm. He is speaking against towns and cities in chapters 12-14, and indeed against ‘this generation’, whose last state will be worse than its first (12:45). He quotes Isaiah: “this people’s heart has grown dull” (13:15). Straight after, he will be rejected by Nazareth, his own town (13:57). The judgement in view is first and foremost a national one.

Why is Jesus so harsh in this teaching? Matthew takes care to set this teaching in context of Israel’s long history of hardness toward their God. Ch.12-14 have in view the towns where Jesus has done his most miracles and yet still been rejected. These towns are like their forefathers, always hearing but never understanding or turning back. In ch.7 Jesus is addressing the problem of false leaders who are leading the nation astray (7:15). Jesus is speaking into a very particular historical situation, with this people just using up the last of God’s aeon-long patience. They cannot pretend there will be no consequences. There will in fact be literal fire, when the Jerusalem temple is destroyed. Given the horrors of 70AD which await Israel, Jesus words sound quite measured and sober.

To develop a doctrine of Hell direct from these teachings would be to tear Jesus’ words from their context and use them to answer questions which are not raised by Matthew’s gospel. This is to do violence to the text.

Tomorrow: The fire prepared for the devil

Hell 17: The unquenchable fire

Posted: April 22, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Chinese Fire DragonWe’ve taken a few posts to explore the idea of Gehenna. It’s time to broaden things a little, and consider a more common Scripture image of judgement: fire.

Ever since Sodom and Gomorrah, fire was the key symbol for God’s judgement, among the Hebrews. When Yahweh appears to Moses in a bush of fire, it’s time for judgement to begin in Egypt. Throughout the wilderness wanderings, God is with the people as a fire. Sometimes that fire burns against the people, bringing calamity. For the Israelites, the presence of this fire was at times traumatic:

For this great fire will consume us; if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any longer, we shall die.

Deut. 5:25

The whole sacrificial system of burnt offerings is based on this reality of judgement: when offerings are made to God by fire, it expresses that

the LORD your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.            Deut. 4:24

Fire is also the image of Yahweh’s conquest over Israel’s enemies and his own:

The images of their gods you shall burn with fire.          Deut. 7:25
Know then today that Yahweh your God is the one who crosses over before you as a devouring fire; he will defeat them and subdue them before you.

Deut. 9:3

Fire is not described as merely a tool of Yahweh’s: he himself is the fire. This is of course a metaphor. While in ancient near eastern religions there were no doubt gods who were considered to inhabit fires, for the Hebrews fire is a sign or symbol with which Yahweh was closely identifiedrather than containing or defining Him.

The Psalms continue this traditional metaphor: Yahweh is once again closely connected to the fire of judgement. He is even portrayed as a kind of dragon monster:

Smoke went up from his nostrils,
and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him. 

Psalm 18:8

The prophets also found it natural to work with this core symbol of heaven’s judgement. They used fire imagery extensively, and developed it somewhat. The prophetess Hulda speaks of unquenched fire:

Because they have abandoned me and have made offerings to other gods, so that they have provoked me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched.    2 Kings 22:17

In the passage this is drawn from, Jerusalem’s fate is contrasted with King Josiah’s: Yahweh will relent from his wrath against the king – but not from his anger against the city. That fire will not be quenched. Unquenchable here refers to the certainty of the coming judgement.

Isaiah sees the land of Edom devoured by this same fire:

For the LORD has a day of vengeance…
And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
and her soil into sulphur;
her land shall become burning pitch. 
Night and day it shall not be quenched;
its smoke shall go up forever.
From generation to generation it shall lie waste;
no one shall pass through it forever and ever. 

Isaiah 34:8-10

Later in the chapter Edom, having been emptied of people, becomes the home of animals! It would be a mistake to ask how animals can live on permanently burning sulfur soil. The passage is full of the most vivid poetic imagery and is not intended as a literal description. Rather, the unquenchable burning pitch is a powerful symbol of the permanence of Edom’s overthrow.

‘Fire’ is often employed as an agricultural  image: the people are like plants, and any that don’t bear good fruit will be burned up. This of course tapped into an everyday experience for a rural society such as Israel:

When I expected my vineyard to yield good grapes,
why did it yield bad grapes?
…Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble,
and as dry grass sinks down in the flame,
so their root will become rotten,
and their blossom go up like dust;
for they have rejected the instruction of the LORD of hosts.

Isaiah 5:4, 24

The LORD once called you, “A green olive tree, fair with goodly fruit”; but with the roar of a great tempest he will set fire to it, and its branches will be consumed. 

Jeremiah 11:16

Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard…
fruitful and full of branches
But it was plucked up in fury,
its fruit was stripped off,
its strong stem was withered;
the fire consumed it. 
Now it is transplanted into the wilderness,
into a dry and thirsty land. 
And fire has gone out from its stem,
has consumed its branches and fruit,
so that there remains in it no strong stem,
no scepter for ruling.

Ezekiel 19:11-14

Here in Ezekiel, the image of fire is combined with that of violent transplant: a double image referring to Israel’s exile and loss of kingdom.

Isaiah also points out the implications for corrupt Israel of having having to deal with a fire-god such as Yahweh:

The sinners in Zion are afraid;
trembling has seized the godless:
“Who among us can live with the devouring fire?
Who among us can live with eternal flames?”

Isaiah 33:14

Here God himself is the fire, as in Deuteronomy. But now he is an eternal, or neverending fire. Who can live with such a God? It might be thought that this is a rhetorical question: no one can live in fire. But in fact Isaiah answers it: “Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly” (v.15). These ones can live with the devouring fire. Once again it is apparent that fire is being used in its traditional sense, as a metaphor for Yahweh the judge. He is the eternal fire. And only the upright can stand in the face of his judgement.

Isaiah extends the image in terrifying fashion: the wicked themselves are envisioned as the fire that burns unceasingly in Yahweh’s nostrils:

Those who say, “Keep to yourself,
do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
a fire that burns all day long.

Isaiah 65:5

This same image is then used again at the end of the vision, to close the whole book of Isaiah:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched…   Isaiah 66:24

Notice the conjunction ‘for’ here. It gives the clue to reading this vision. God’s people can have confidence that these enemies will end up like the dead bodies of the Egyptians on the seashore. This will certainly happen,  because Yahweh’s fire will burn all day in his nostrils. It will not be quenched, it will burn until to the end and destroy them. Here ‘not quenched’ is used as it was in 2 Kings 22, above, regarding Jerusalem and Josiah: it speaks of the unrelenting nature of God’s judgement: he is not going to change his mind about this or let up, until they are destroyed.

Jeremiah uses the same image for Jerusalem: Yahweh tells him not to pray for the people, for God will not listen. The decree is firm. The people will not listen either, or turn; for their judgement is final:

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: My anger and my wrath shall be poured out on this place, on human beings and animals, on the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched.

   Jeremiah 7:20

Inevitability – that’s what the unquenchable fire expresses here. That seems to be Jeremiah’s standard way of using this image (cf. 4:4; 15:14; 17:27)

Ezekiel prophesies against the forests of the Negeb:

Thus says the Lord GOD, I will kindle a fire in you, and it shall devour every green tree in you and every dry tree; the blazing flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from south to north shall be scorched by it.  All flesh shall see that I the LORD have kindled it; it shall not be quenched.  

Ezekiel 20:47-48

Here the fire will not be quenched, but instead it will continue to devour until everything is scorched, from south to north. Completeness is the idea in view in Ezekiel.

Daniel pictures God’s throne of judgement as being made of fire:

his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire. 
A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his presence…
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened. 

Daniel 7:9-10

The powerful beast oppressing God’s people is then given over to this judgement fire.

And as I watched, the beast was put to death, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire.   (v.11)

What does this image mean, of the beast being burned in fire? Daniel doesn’t understand the vision, so it is later decoded for us. The literal explanation is this:

Then the court shall sit in judgment,
and his rule shall be taken away,
to be consumed and totally destroyed.       v.26

The burning of the beast represents the destruction of his authority and power. As always the fire image is just that: an image. And here it has this distinctive nuance not found in other occurances: referring to the overthrow of enemy rule.

Malachi picks up on Isaiah’s image of the unbearable presence of God’s fire.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?  For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;  he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.  Malachi 4:2-3

Once again the fire is Yahweh himself. Here it is seen as deadly for some (represented by the dross or impurities) but a blessing to the nation as a whole, which will be purified. As before, there is the idea of the fire enduring until the refining process is complete: it will burn away all the dross.  That idea is picked up in the next chapter – the last in the OT canon.

See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch2 But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.  And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. 

Malachi 4:1-2

The wicked are compare to plant refuse thrown in the furnace. The fire will leave nothing behind: it will devour completely. None of the wicked can endure it. This aligns with Ezekiel’s usage of the ‘fire that will not be quenched’ – expressing total destruction.

It is interesting to notice that here the wicked seem to make a comeback after being burned to nothing. We thought they were gone forever, but now here they are, being trodden down under the feet of the faithful. How can this be? How can they be totally destroyed by fire, and also still be around to be trodden under foot? The prophetic imagery is flexible enough to allow for both of these images: now the wicked are the ashes left by the fire, and the righteous tread on the ash! The ideas of complete destruction and of ongoing defeat and humiliation are brought together with devastating effect.

Hopefully by now we’re getting the idea about metaphor. We are moving in a symbolic world in which imagery can be combined and stretched creatively to make nuanced theological points.


We have seen that the prophets make use of the traditional fire-imagery of Israel to put across their own various messages about God’s judgement. Fire can refer to the destruction of people, cities, nations, or the reign of rulers, or generally to exile. The prophets tend to use the metaphor in agricultural contexts. Their main contribution to the tradition was the addition of ‘unending’ or ‘unquenchable’ to the metaphor. The symbol of ‘fire that is not quenched’ is employed to speak variously of the inevitability, totality, or permanence of God’s judgement, and of the unrelenting constancy of his wrath against evildoers. In this symbolic territory, the images and language stay fairly stable, but their application to reality is flexible and nuanced.

Hell 16: Lazarus and the rich man

Posted: April 17, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

450px-Meister_des_Codex_Aureus_Epternacensis_001There’s no mention of Gehenna in John. There’s just one unique reference to Hades/Gehenna in Luke – and that one is quite extraordinary. It’s one that believers in ‘hell’ often look to for evidence. Let’s take a look:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.  Luke 16:19-21

Two absolute extremes of the social spectrum – at the same address! But now the scene shifts:

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried.  In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.  He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’  16:22-24

Where are the two men now? Both have died. One goes up, carried on angels’ wings to Abraham’s side: a traditional post-mortem destination for the deserving (cf. IV Maccabees 13:17). Abraham was seen in the Talmud as having some sort of caretaker role in the afterlife.

The other is buried in the earth, which is Hades, the place of the dead. But he is not just in Hades: he seems to be in that part of Hades reserved for the wicked: Tartarus, or Gehenna, the traditional place of torment. There he suffers ‘agony in flames’.

These post-mortem destinations correct the extreme imbalance experienced in the land of the living:

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.   v.25

The idea that the poor would be comforted after death and exempt from Gehenna, was a common enough rabbinic teaching; e.g.:

Three kinds of persons do not see the face of Gehenna. These are they: the destitute, one who is afflicted with bowel diseases, or by the [Roman] government. (Bab. Talmud, Eruvin, 41b)

There was also a common idea in the Talmud that Israelites were either exempt from Gehenna, or else Abraham would rescue them once they were there.

…the saying of Reish Lakish to the effect that the fires of hell cannot gain access to the bodies of the sinners in Israel…

Reish Lakish: “Those sentenced go briefly to Gehinom, and Abraham takes them out, except for a Jew who had relations with a foreigner… 

 Babylonian Talmud, Book 2: Tracts Erubin, 19a

The rich man asks Abraham for some of this help:

‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’

By Jewish standards, he’s not asking much: just one drop of water. But even this is denied him:

…between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’     v.26

Let’s stop and take stock of what we’ve seen. Much of this story is absolutely traditional. The details are drawn from similar stories in rabbinic and intertestamental literature. Jesus sets up a scene of an intermediate state of judgement, after death but before the final judgement and resurrection. This was commonplace. The idea that the righteous and the damned could see each other’s fate, was also normal. Most of the details of his story would hold little challenge for the average Jew.

But there are aspects of Jesus’ version that were far from traditional, and may have shocked his hearers.

First, the idea that a Jewish man might end up in Gehenna was controversial. The majority rabbinic view seems to have been against this.

Second, the idea that once a Jew was in Gehenna, he was stuck there for good, was even more controversial. As we have seen, even of those who thought Jews might enter Gehenna, it was generally only for a short time, typically one year. Abraham would come and fetch them out. (Except in extreme cases.) But in Jesus’ version, there is no coming back from Gehenna, not even for Jews.  This makes it a much more terrible prospect.

But perhaps the most shocking of all was the idea of a rich man being punished for being rich and not caring for the poor.

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.   v.25

Traditional sins that consigned one to Gehenna were pride, anger, idolatry, sexual immorality – not wealth! Wealth was generally considered to be a sign of God’s favour. There was a strong tradition of the virtue of alms-giving. But the idea of punishment for not giving – that was counter-cultural. Jesus, however, has this man being judged merely on the basis of his wealth and (implied) lack of generosity!

How can Jesus justify this departure from the standards of his society? It seems a bit unfair to go consigning people to Gehenna, when they were living within the accepted boundaries of decent conduct.

This parable functions as a concluding illustration and climax to the preceding discourse about the dangers of wealth. In it Jesus has criticised the Pharisees for preferring wealth and status over care for the poor.

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.    v.14-15

It seems it is not just this one rich man who has a problem: rather he is a representative or typical Israelite. Jesus is describing the divergence between God’s standard and that of contemporary Judaism. To illustrate this more clearly still, Jesus sets up a devastating conclusion to his story: he introduces the rest of the family:

The rich man said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house—  for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’  Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’  He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’   He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”    v.27-31

The rich man may have fitted in comfortably with his culture – but Jesus alleges that he had departed far from the covenant with Moses. Is Jesus right?

Yes he is. Mosaic law had a strong and extensive tradition of mercy for the poor and homeless: “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11). Jesus’ point here is that this central aspect of the covenant has been suppressed in the Judaism of his time. Compassion has come to be seen as an optional extra creating virtue, rather than as a debt owed to God, an essential part of belonging to God’s people. In turning their backs on the poor, the rich in Israel had also turned their backs on the covenant. The rich man’s brothers, then, would not be helped by another messenger from God – they have already rejected all the messengers.

In this way, the wealth which is so prized by the Pharisees and others, has become an abomination to God.

And this is the point of the parable. This is the topic Jesus is teaching about, here and through the whole preceding discourse. He is not teaching about hell, but about riches and abomination. Significant sections of Judaism has gone dangerously wrong in this area. And being Jewish will not protect you them from judgement. If you are greedy and close your heart to the poor now, nothing will be able save you from God’s wrath, later. That’s the message.

Why then does Jesus introduce this after-life, ‘intermediate state’ experience, a concept apparently unknown in the OT and in the rest of his teaching? For this parable is unique in Jesus’ opus. Why does he transform Gehenna from the place of final destruction it is in Matthew’s gospel, to being a holding-place prior to the final judgement, as it is here? Is this a hint of a whole other strand in Jesus’ teaching, unknown to us except in this parable? Of tensions or contradictions within his message?

This is unlikely. It is important to distinguish what Jesus is teaching, from the form in which he teaches it. The form here is entirely traditional: a tale of afterlife recompense for the deeds of this life. But the content is radical. This parable is an example of a genre something like parody: “an imitative work created to mock or comment on an original work” – in this case not to mock but to comment on and challenge. Jesus employs this traditional tale as a frame in which to set his radical message: a message of confrontation between the values of Israel’s leaders, and the values of God’s covenant and kingdom. The traditional elements here form a background against which the new elements stand out all the more sharply.

It would be a mistake – a genre error – to attempt to learn anything about Hades or Abraham’s side from this parable. Jesus neither confirms nor denies the traditional cosmology of his tale: it is not his interest. He rather employs it for his own purposes. That’s how parables work: everyday material used to say something about the dynamics of God’s kingdom. In Jesus’ farming parables, no one would imagine he was wanting to teach a message about agriculture. When Jesus describes the eye’s task of shedding light (Luke 11), he is not endorsing or promoting the Platonic model of eyesight, commonly held in the ancient world. He is using traditional images and categories as the vehicle within which to say  something new. The same applies in this parable. To seek to learn about the nature of Gehenna from this parable would be to mistake the form for the content.

Hell 15: Jesus and Isaiah’s worm

Posted: April 16, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

hell1There is not much emphasis on Gehenna in Mark’s gospel: we have just one reference:

“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire.   And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into Gehenna.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire.” 

Mark 9:43-49   

The context is all about leadership, and this passage clearly is also: ‘taking care of Jesus’ little ones’. The tone is negative and admonitory: retribution is threatened for those who make the little ones stumble: “it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” (9:42).

There follow three parallel warnings to remove offending body parts that cause stumbling: a vivid image of repentance from sin. We met this image before, in a different context in Matthew’s gospel: it seems it was a metaphor Jesus used repeatedly.

These warnings are backed up by three parallel comparisons: “it is better to ___ than to ___ .”

It is better to:        than to:

enter life                       go to Gehenna, to the unquenchable fire

enter life                       be thrown into Gehenna

enter the kingdom of God      be thrown into Gehenna where

their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched

Of the two alternatives here, the first is ‘life’, which is equated with ‘the kingdom of God’. The other option is Gehenna, which is ‘the unquenchable fire’.

This technique of parallelism is a common Jewish literary device. Twice is the norm: by saying it three times here, Jesus emphasises the importance of this idea. In this technique, each reiteration must use different words, but the meaning is felt to be much the same each time. On the third comparison, Jesus varies the wording by adding a quote from his own Jewish tradition, Isaiah 66: “their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.”

It’s not so easy to understand this highly formulaic and culturally specific teaching, from the outside. But Jesus says it’s important to get it. So perhaps it’s worth us taking a bit of time, to try to shed some light on it.

1.  Once again we are in symbolic territory: no one thinks Jesus is advocating self-harm here. The image of entering God’s kingdom with self-maimed bodies is not to be taken literally but metaphorically: it stands for the necessity of repentance. In other words ‘the body’ is treated here as a symbol. Everyone agrees on this. Perhaps it is not too much to suggest that in the negative side of the comparison, the body’s fate should also be heard in symbolic terms? A whole healthy body going into the flames of the pit – it’s a terrible image, yes: but an image of what?

2. This teaching is specifically given to the Twelve, the leaders of the new-age community. Soon Jesus will arrive in Jerusalem and denounce the behaviour of the leaders there: they will receive ‘severe condemnation’ and be destroyed (12:9,40). Both here and there Jesus’ teaching about judgement is ‘leader talk’, regarding how leaders treat their followers.  ‘Gehenna‘ here is equivalent to ‘leaders’ condemnation’ and the ‘replacement of the tenants’ in ch.12. These are not teachings aimed at ordinary people.

3. Jesus is not presenting a traditional (Hellenised) cosmology of ‘Heaven and Hell’. The positive side of the comparison is ‘entering life’ or ‘entering the kingdom of God’. His teaching here is plugged in to the prophetic hope of Israel for future age of restoration through the return of King Yahweh. In this it is integrated with Jesus’ message throughout Mark’s gospel, starting from his opening announcement: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ Entering the kingdom is not quite the same thing as ‘heaven when you die.’  In Mark it is something that happens in this life, in this world (cf. Mark 10:15-25) – because Jesus is now ushering it in.

This has implications for how we hear the negative side. Jesus uses completely traditional phrases for this side of the comparison: fire, Gehenna, and the Isaiah 66 passage which was traditionally linked with this term. There is, as usual, no elaboration at all. This negative side is something to be feared and avoided, not explored. But in the comparison it contrasts with entering or receiving the kingdom: it must mean missing out. Neither traditional ‘heaven’ nor ‘hell’ seems to be in view here.

What does the Gehenna of fire have to do with leaders missing out on the kingdom? It supplies the emotional freight needed to give suitable weight to Jesus’ warning. How bad is missing out on the kingdom? Imagine your bodies going into the flames of Gehenna, leader-boys. That’s how bad. Jesus pulls out all the stops here. A triple warning with triple Gehenna. That’s about as scary as they come. Clearly, when it comes to the possibility of abusing the little ones, leaders need the crap scared out of them. Only leaders are ever subjected to this sort of scare-tactic from Jesus, in Mark. But he does it to them repeatedly.

4.  We have seen in a previous post how this ‘fire and worms’ prophecy was later identified with Gehenna and the ‘second death’, in the Targums (intertestamental rabbinic literature). Jesus, by linking Isaiah 66 and Gehenna, references this interpretive tradition. Is Jesus buying into the whole rabbinic view of Gehenna, then?

In the Targums the Isaiah prophecy was often treated as a literal description of the fate of souls (cf. e.g. Targum Jonathan). Jesus, however, emphasises the body, and is clearly speaking in metaphors. He doesn’t seem to be taking things in the same direction as the Targums.

Even in the Targums, Gehenna was not often seen as a place of everlasting punishment: its torments were generally said to last for a limited time. So even if Jesus were buying in to this tradition more fully, he would scarcely be giving a clear and unequivocal teaching about the everlasting torment of souls, here in Mark 9 (as is often asserted). There is no way to be confident that Jesus’ original hearers, familiar with rabbinic teachings, would have heard those ideas in Jesus’ words here.

5. It’s interesting to notice that the original source of the ‘worms and fire’ quote, Isaiah 66, also sits quite naturally with Jesus’ warnings here: for in ch.65-66 Isaiah was warning the temple leaders in Jerusalem of a time when they would experience the fire of God’s anger, a fire which ‘burns all day long’ (65:5). The result would be ‘dead bodies’. The little ones whom they oppressed would then be free to play safely with no one to hurt them. These are the same themes Jesus is teaching about here in Mark 9.


Well, that was a bit of work, eh? Worth it though, I reckon.

Because it is true that when we modern westerners read Jesus’ triple warning, images of heaven and hell come straight to mind. Everlasting torment seems to be there on the surface of his teaching. However, I would suggest that this is because we bring these ideas with us to the text. They are deeply imprinted on our cultural consciousness – but not on that of Jesus’ original audience or of Mark’s first readers.  As soon as we start trying to listen from their view point, a different picture emerges.

Jesus  seems to be employing the term Gehenna to describe what will take place when the corrupt leaders of God’s people are exposed, destroyed and replaced. In other words, he uses the word symbolically. As in Matthew.

Hell 14: What does Jesus do with Gehenna?

Posted: April 12, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology
Tags: ,

eyeballWhen Jesus began to teach, he was speaking into a Judaism that had developed during the centuries of prophetic ‘silence’. In particular, ideas about an afterlife and Gehenna had entered the Jewish worldview, ideas which were not drawn from the Scriptures.

How would Jesus respond to this situation? His main options are:

1. to affirm the new ideas

2. to modify them

3. to reject them, or

4. to ignore them

So it’s time for some exegesis, at last. The moment our evangelical readers have been waiting for! Strap in. Let’s see what Jesus does with the tradition he inherited regarding Hades and Gehenna.

Most of the material is found in Matthew’s gospel. In Matthew 5, Jesus is teaching the new values of the kingdom, interacting with the law of Moses:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the court; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.  Matthew 5:21-22

Here Gehenna sits in parallel with two other words: ‘judgement’ and ‘the court’. These three function as different versions of the same idea. The phrase ‘the Gehenna of fire’ features as the final and most intensified judgement-term. All three terms are traditional. Jesus speaks of God’s judgement using a term his listeners would all have understood.

Jesus’ contribution here is not in anything he says about Gehenna, but in exposing the relational heart of Moses’ command: enmity against your brother is an offence to God. He goes on to unpack that theme – the idea of Gehenna is left behind, and turns out to be incidental. It is not what Jesus is teaching about. His theme is enmity.

The next reference comes soon after in a discussion of the Mosaic  laws about adultery:

But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust…   Matthew 5:28

The eye can commit adultery! There follows an exhortation using graphical bodily imagery for repentance from this sin:

If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.  And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to depart into Gehenna.    Matthew 5:29-30

The confronting idea here is that the eye, and not merely the penis can commit sexual sin. Thus we must even repent of our way of looking. Jesus pictures this repentance as a tearing out of the immoral eye. The alternative is for the whole body to be cut off and ‘thrown away’, into the fire of Gehenna. The punchline is that unless we turn away our bodies from sin, they will be lost. The body here stands, of course, for the whole person.

The discourse goes on to speak further of adultery. Once again the idea of Gehenna is left behind, and proves to be incidental to the main focus, occurring only in dependent clauses. Jesus is not teaching about Gehenna here. How is he employing the term?

In a passage as laden with imagery as this one, it is likely that Jesus is also using this traditional category ‘Gehenna‘ somewhat metaphorically. Gehenna is pictured as a kind of incinerator into which rubbish is thrown away: an image of destruction. There is not much sense of place evoked in the way Jesus employs the word. The point is about being cut off and thrown away.

However, it is interesting that Jesus describes Gehenna as a place for the body (not just the soul!). And not for the last time:

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.  Matthew 10:28

Jesus is warning his disciples that they will be persecuted for their ministry. But they must not be silenced by fear.

…whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.     Matthew 10:32

In other words they should fear God rather than man, and continue their ministry. In this contrast, ‘body’ is outweighed by ‘body and soul’, while ‘kill’ is outweighed by ‘destroy’ (Gr. apoluo)- here meaning a kind of super-killing that implies the total loss of the object.

Yet again, Jesus is not teaching about Gehenna. He is teaching about whom to fear. Gehenna is mentioned in a dependent clause, and the sentence would make perfect sense if this clause were lopped off: ‘fear him who can destroy body and soul’.

What does the phrase ‘in Gehenna’ add, then? Emotional weight, colour, symbolic force, perhaps narrative context. By saying ‘in Gehenna’, Jesus brings a vivid image of judgement into the mind’s eye of the hearers, an image that carried a weight of terror with it. His hearers knew this word well, it would get a reaction. It’s easy to feel fear of men: Jesus wants to make sure they adequately feel the fear on the other side. Also, with this one word, Jesus taps into a whole narrative: the story of the final judgement. The disciples may (and will)  be judged guilty before human courts, as will Jesus himself. But they should remember that this judgement is not final: all must stand before a higher court, ‘before my Father in heaven’ – and there the stakes will be higher. Gehenna here stands for final and irreversible condemnation and death, the loss of everything, of the whole person. Fear that!

There are a couple of references to Hades in Matthew.

And you, Capernaum,
will you be exalted to heaven?
No, you will be brought down to Hades.             Matthew 11:23-24

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 14:13-15) denouncing Babylon. Like that ancient city, Capernaum’s sin is pride. But rather than ascending into neverending glory, it will be brought down to the grave in shame. Hades here is a part of the Isaianic quote, and is used in its OT sense, meaning deathIt is interesting to note that here it is not an individual person but a city which is envisaged sinking down to Hades. We are talking the fate of cities, not of souls.

In Matthew 16 Jesus seems to be commissioning Peter in some way:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.   Matthew 16:18

Here Hades is envisaged as a stronghold armed in conscious opposition to God, guarding its prisoners, the dead. In the face of the new community Jesus is forming, this fortress will prove to be vulnerable and powerless to retain its inhabitants. In this metaphorical usage, Hades stands for the power of death, in which humanity has been trapped for so long. It would be a mistake to hear this as a description of an actual sentient kingdom, as has sometimes been done in Christian tradition. That would be to misunderstand the metaphor. Satan is probably not in view here.

In Matthew 23, Jesus is indicting the rabbis for leading the nation into ruin:

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a son of Gehenna as yourselves. Matthew 23:13

Here Gehenna functions as an opposite to the kingdom of heaven. People belong to one or the other. To stop people entering the kingdom, is to make them into a child of Gehenna. There are no details about Gehenna here, but plenty of details about the sons of Gehenna: they are hypocrites who exalt themselves, etc. The sons of the kingdom, in contrast, humble themselves. Gehenna here is not viewed as a rival empire to God’s kingdom. Rather, it stands for judgement: those who turn aside from the kingdom of heaven show that they are sons of destruction.

This meaning is seen clearly later in the same discourse when Jesus says:

You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape the judgement of Gehenna? 

Matthew 23:33

Here Gehenna functions as an adjective, qualifying the word ‘judgement’. The qualifier lends a weight of threat to the idea of judgement.

This passage (Matt. 23) is particularly revealing about what Jesus has in mind when he says Gehenna. He is making a historical argument about the long-term guilt of Israel:

Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.  32 Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors.    23:31

He rehearses the whole long, painful story:

Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.     23:34

The result is that the judgement for all that guilt will now fall:

so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah… Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.   23:35-36

This judgement will be felt in the place most responsible: the capital Jerusalem:

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets… See, your house is left to you, desolate.”  23:37-38

The desolation of Jerusalem: this is what Jesus has in mind here when he threatens them with Gehenna. Can there be any doubt that we are hearing a prediction of 70AD? We couldn’t be further from the dualist, after-life cosmology that interested many of Jesus contemporaries (and many of us!).

As before, Jesus’ teaching here is not actually about Gehenna. He could easily have left the word out, both times in Matthew 23. His teaching is rather about the judgement that will fall on the enemies of the kingdom. He uses the term Gehenna to add vividness and punch to his warnings.

What does Jesus do with the ideas of an afterlife and Gehenna, which he inherited from his culture?

I think we can pretty confidently rule out option 3. Jesus does not reject the Gehenna tradition. We find him confronting the Sadducees for denying the resurrection of the dead – but not the Rabbis for teaching Gehenna. It seems that, although it was not found in Jewish Scripture, Jesus does not treat this tradition as a problem.

However, we have seen in these occurrences how little interest Jesus has in talking about Gehenna itself, or about what it is like to be there. We do not get a clear feeling of place. The sense of an afterlife is hardly present in Jesus’ usage. So there are aspects of the Gehenna tradition which Jesus steers clear of.

Rather, time and again Jesus exploits the powerful potential of this concept as an image of judgement. This certainly fits within the scope of traditional usage. He adopts the symbolic language current in Judaism, but adapts it to his own ends. His own interests are quite different from those among his contemporaries who wish to dwell on the details of the underworld. His concerns are much more ‘this-worldly’. Jesus uses the language of Gehenna to serve his distinctive theological and social agenda. In Jesus’ hands this term focusses attention on the reality that God’s judgement is close at hand: final and irrevocable, coming to a city near you. We’re talking Option 2: modify the tradition. Jesus’ approach to Gehenna brings it much closer to the thought structures of Israel’s prophets of old.  Jesus is calling Israel to God’s kingdom, and everything is at stake in the response they make.

Hell 13: Gehenna

Posted: April 7, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Where did Hell come from? Weird idea. Not there in Jewish Scripture. It’d be nice to know its origin.



Let’s take a look. We need introduce the ideas of Sheol, Hades and Gehenna.

In Jewish Scripture, there is only one place where the dead go: the place of the dead, Sheol, also called ‘the earth’. It is a place in which agency, consciousness, relationship – everything that makes up the person – is lost. It’s like a permanent sleep. Though people might be consigned there as a punishment, Sheol is not generally seen as an experience of punishment, but of oblivion. In Jewish Scripture, there is little interest in the details of Sheol, for it seems to be a place without much in the way of divisions or distinctions. The interesting place is this world and this life. By contrast, Sheol is lacking is any activity or event which might create narrative interest: much of what is said about it is negative. Sheol is the place where things do not happen. There are no experiences there. The same fate is shared by all.

The one interesting narrative regarding Sheol involves a man – Samuel – being raised out of the earth (1 Samuel 28). For even a conversation to occur, Samuel has to be lifted back into the realm where things happen. And he does not appreciate his sleep being disturbed in this way!

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, they translated Sheol using a well-known Greek term:  Hades. This usage carried over from the Greek Septuagint Bible into the NT, where Hades is often used as a synonym for ‘death’ or ‘the grave’.  

However, the Greek Hades was actually a much more complex and highly developed idea than the simple Hebrew Sheol. The Greeks had a highly developed cosmology, including realms of spirit beings, and an underworld. Hades had various sections, into which the dead were divided depending on which judgement they received. Some went to the pleasures of Elysium, others to the torments of Tartarus. In Hades, events could and did occur. There are plenty of Greek stories about these places, and adventures people have there in the ‘afterlife’. There is even the idea that being dead might be better and more pleasant than being alive – if you end up in the right place. This view of Hades of course involved attributing much more personhood to the dead than Hebrew thought allowed: the dead continued in consciousness as some sort of disembodied shade.

During the intertestamental period, the Jewish people was scattered through many nations, and subject to many foreign influences. Many of these ‘Gentile’ cultures had well-developed ideas about an afterlife. Chief among these influences was Hellenism, which was the dominant cultural force in the Levant during the centuries before Christ. The Greek worldview had a strong interest in non-material realms and the soul. During this period, Jewish interest in cosmology and the ‘afterlife’ also flowered. Concepts start to appear in Jewish writing, analogous to the Greek ones described above. There is an explosion of interest in angels, in their activities and their fate. Sheol/Hades is differentiated, and becomes a place of division between the righteous and the wicked, a place where experiences and events can happen. Visionaries recount their adventures there. The dead become ‘souls’ who have conscious experiences. In short, the afterlife becomes a locus of intense interest. Just like in Greek culture.

The extra-canonical book 1 Enoch bears testimony to these developments. This first or second century BC Jewish apocalyptic writing takes readers on an extended tour of the underworld, describing its geography in detail. Notable for our purposes are several zones of punishment, where the condemned of various sorts are tormented in valleys of eternal fire.

Sheol was coming to look more and more like the Greek idea of Hades. It is not surprising then to find that in Jewish thought there arose the idea of one section of Sheol specially divided off as a place of horror and pain. By the time of the NT, a new word, much more threatening than Sheol, was on the scene: Gehenna. Gehenna was a place of fire and torment, where the wicked would suffer. This idea is not found in the Jewish Scriptures. But it is closely analogous with the Greek Tartarus, the section of Hades which was the abode of the damned. If the Hebrew concept Sheol had borrowed a Greek word Hades, now the translation seems to be going the opposite direction: a Greek concept is borrowing a Hebrew word, Tartarus becomes Gehenna.

Gehenna was originally a real place, just outside Jerusalem. It was the valley of the Sons of Hinnom (Hebrew: Gai ben Hinnom). The valley had become infamous in earlier centuries as a place where human sacrifice had occurred to the god Molech (see e.g. Jeremiah 7:31). It was also known as Tophet. In the Jewish mind, ben Hinnom was forever associated with burning, death and abomination (but not with an ‘afterlife’). It was used as a place for tombs. (The tradition that it was a rubbish dump is doubtful.) The prophet Jeremiah foresees a time when the valley of ben Hinnom will be healed and restored in the return from exile (Jeremiah 31:40). In its Greek version, the name of the valley was Gehenna.

Much later in the centuries just before Christ, in Rabbinic literature such as the Targums, the name Gehenna is used with reference to the fate of the wicked. For example, where Isaiah 66 has the bodies of the dead suffering an undying fire and worm, the Targum paraphrase adds to that text the words Gehenna and second death. By this time the valley has become a metaphor for an afterlife experience of shame and fire. It is connected with ‘the second death’, perhaps death of the soul.

The intertestamental book Judith also picks up on the same Isaiah 66 imagery, adding the idea of ongoing torment:

“The Lord, the Almighty, will  punish them on the Day of Judgment by putting fire and worms into their flesh, so that they cry out with pain unto all eternity.”           Judith 16:17

The Rabbinic literature of the Talmud and Mishnah bears testimony that an interest in the afterlife had become prevalent in significant sections of the Jewish community: discussion of the fate of souls is a major theme there. The rabbinic view is that Gehenna is a kind of purgatory, to be endured for no more than a year after death. Beyond that some rabbis believed of the wicked: “their souls are burned, and the wind strews the ashes under the feet of the pious.” (R.H. 17a) Jews were often considered to be in some way exempt from the fires of Gehenna. It was especially a place for the heathen who had persecuted Israel: Romans, Persians etc. It is often said that Gehenna will itself be destroyed in future times. It is not generally seen as the everlasting Hell of later Christian tradition.

First century AD Jewish writer Josephus described three sects within the Judaism of his day: the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes. Of these three, the first and third had well-developed views of an afterlife. Josephus saw the Essenes‘ beliefs as parallel to those of the Greeks:

[they believe] that bodies are corruptible, and that the matter they are made of is not permanent; but that the souls are immortal, and continue for ever…and are united to their bodies as to prisons, … but that when they are set free from the bonds of the flesh, they then, as released from a long bondage, rejoice and mount upward. And this is like the opinions of the Greeks, that good souls have their habitations beyond the ocean, in a region that is neither oppressed with storms of rain or snow, or with intense heat, but that this place is such as is refreshed by the gentle breathing of a west wind, …while they allot to bad souls a dark and tempestuous den, full of never-ceasing punishments. And indeed the Greeks seem to me to have followed the same notion, when they allot…to the souls of the wicked, the region of the ungodly, in Hades, where their fables relate that certain persons, …are punished. And this is built on this first supposition, that souls are immortal. And thence are those exhortations to virtue and warnings against wickedness drawn; whereby good men are bettered in the conduct of their life by the hope they have of reward after their death; and whereby the vehement inclinations of bad men to vice are restrained, by the fear and expectation they are in, that although they should lie concealed in this life, they should suffer immortal punishment after their death. Josephus, Wars of the Jews,  2.8.11

And according to Josephus, the Pharisees’ (his own sect) held similar views:

They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies,—but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.   Wars of the Jews 2.8.14

Josephus’s description of the Pharisees grates a little with the Rabbinic version. Possibly he was exaggerating the similarity between Jewish and Greek beliefs in order to commend Judaism to his Greek audience. But it does seem clear that by the time of Christ, interest in an afterlife and belief in the immortality of the soul were commonplace in Judaism.

The details of Gehenna vary in different sources.  The picture is not crystal clear, probably reflecting the diversity of views within Judaism. But the outlines are firm enough: Gehenna is a place of post-mortem punishment for the wicked: some kind of ‘second death’ after death. One strand has this as a temporary experience. But another strand, at least at strong, holds to everlasting torment. Primarily for foreigners! By the time of Jesus, the threat of never-ending anguish in the fire of hell was a mainstream idea in Judaism – though not accepted by all.

You can see how, psychologically, this doctrine worked for the Jews. If your people has been crushed for hundreds of years, you’re going to build up an anger of cosmic proportions. A couple of times the Jews tried unleashing that fire on earth – under the Maccabees for example. But for most of the time, they had no way to express it. The traditional hope of political salvation never materialised. The idea of an after-death spiritualised reckoning, in which God’s people could enjoy the screams of their enemies at last – such an idea might just be potent enough to bear the weight of holding Israel’s pent-up hatred. And what other outlet was available?

These were all developments in Judaism after the time of the OT canon, during the era of massive foreign influence.

The concept of Gehenna, then, came as part of a larger shift in world-view and focus, that took place in the faith of Israel in the intertestamental period. The Israelite prophets of old, Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah, knew of no post-mortem Gehenna. But more importantly they were not interested in these questions of an ‘afterlife’ which later became so important in the Jewish mindset. Rather, the prophets’ interests were firmly focussed in the land of the living, and in particular in the land of Israel. Gehenna is not at all a natural outworking of the teachings of Jewish Scripture: rather it is what happened when Judaism was flooded with foreign cultural ideas, in particular those of the Greek world.

When Messiah came, he would have to operate within this altered, Hellenised Judaism. What would he do with these new ideas when he came?

Hell 12: Hunting for Hell

Posted: April 6, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Magnifying glass man for scrutinyI remember when I sat for my doctrine ‘grilling’ prior to ordination. The ‘panel’ was dear old John Chapman (God rest his soul) and a couple of officials from the diocese. Somewhere along the way, they asked me, did I believe in Hell? I knew the right answer was yes. But I thought I’d better be honest, so I said I could see both sides of the argument, the jury was still out for me. The panel told me, I’d better get clear about this (i.e. decide that Hell was real!). A couple of them started casting around in their bible, looking for proof-texts. The best they could come up with was a vision from Revelation 14:

and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.   And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who…   Rev. 14:10-11

Well, I remember thinking, (I said nothing!) Is that the best you can do? I mean, if you can only find your doctrine in a highly symbolic passage in a book like Revelation, that’s pretty weak. That’s not what I’d call a solid grounding for any doctrine. That interview made me wonder if many people who believe in Hell, do so  for exegetical reasons. 

It’s time to turn to the NT to consider its teaching on God’s wrath. Before we start we should make one point: seems to me that the ‘panel’ was right to go looking for proof-texts. Proof-texts are definitely needed. This is not a doctrine that follows obviously from anything else we believe. Our Gospel-theology doesn’t require it. The shape of biblical theology does not suggest it. Historically, the doctrine does not seem to have arisen from exegesis of Bible-texts (more on this later). It arose along with the idea of the immortality of the soul. Which is a disgraced doctrine. We no longer believe in Hell for that reason. So now, if it is to stand as a doctrine, it will need a different underpinning. We will only believe this is we are persuaded to it by specific NT teaching on the subject.

So it’s the ‘everlasting Hell’ view that needs to make its case here, not annihilationism. In the OT, God’s wrath basically equals destruction. All things being equal, we would expect this to remain unchanged in the NT: God is the same God. So unless we find some compelling new teaching on this theme, our default will be to believe in some sort of destruction of the wicked. Bible-believing Christians have always accepted this much.  (I’m treating annihilationism as a kind of catch-all term for those who aren’t convinced about Hell – convinced about judgement and death, but agnostic about the details). This more general view has no case to prove here. The burden of proof is rather with the much more specific view that that destruction takes the form of ‘everlasting torment in a special place of fire’ – i.e. the doctrine of Hell. Why would we believe such a thing?

So while we’re going to need to explore passages that talk generally about judgement, much of it may not be to the point: we’re looking for something pretty specific here.

What is there?

Surprisingly little. We’re scouring and scraping looking for relevant references. Everyone agrees that there aren’t many places that even appear to teach everlasting Hell. So let’s pull back a little.

John Wenham in his book The Enigma of Evil (p.81–83) has classified 264 New Testament references to the fate of the lost:

  • 10 texts (4%) “Gehenna”
  • 26 (10%) to “burning up”
  • 59 (22%) to “destruction, perdition, utter loss or ruin”
  • 20 (8%) to “separation from God”
  • 25 (10%) to “death in its finality” or “the second death”
  • 108 (41%) to “unforgiven sin”, where the precise consequence is not stated
  • 15 (6%) to “anguish”

This is a helpful overview, though its virtue may be its comprehensiveness rather than its accuracy.

According to Wenham, just one single verse (Revelation 14:11 – the one my panel found) may envision eternal torment. Just one verse. This should give us pause for thought. Even if Wenham is understating things, we’re talking slender support.

Out of these references, the ones that will interest us the most are the first and last: the ‘Gehenna’ teachings and the ‘anguish’ teachings. These two categories have at least a possibility of being relevant. (Remember we need verses that actually teach everlasting torment.) That’s around 10% of the total references.

So at the very most, in the NT teaching about the fate of the lost, it wants to talk about Hell 10% of the time. Probably much less often than that. That’s important to notice. The vast majority of what the NT has to say about the lost, is not of this nature. Rather, it is more general ‘destruction’ teaching. Most of the NT teaching fits with a broad ‘annihilationist’ view.  ‘Hell’ is not exactly a prominent teaching in the NT (and it’s not found in the OT).

Tomorrow: Gehenna

Help us out with Hell

Posted: April 4, 2014 by J in Bible

Bible-007Ok so you’ve been reading these posts about hell, and you’ve had some sort of reaction.

I know the evangelicals among you are justdying for the detailed exegesis of texts to begin. I know this because:

a) I know how much we love to read our doctrine in a single verse, and

b) you guys keep telling me so

So, alright, texts. Which ones? Which are the texts I need to deal with to satisfy your guys? Which texts are the hardest to reconcile with the annihilationist position I’m currently leaning towards?

If there are passages or verses that don’t fit easily with the drift of these posts – I’m open, hit me with it. Have your say.

Don’t let me get away with suggesting something unbiblical. Lots of people are reading this stuff and being influenced by it.

We are going to deal with specific passages, soon. But we’ll have to be selective.

So bring ’em out. Give me…hell.


Hell 11: Isaiah’s undying worm

Posted: April 2, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Uncle-Josh-WORM-e1394382476817Later in the life of Israel, the pattern and imagery of the early judgement-narratives is appropriated by the prophets to describe a future time. One example comes from Isaiah 66. Looking forward, the prophet Isaiah employs this stock of traditional picture-language to describe the eschatological judgement which Yahweh will bring for his persecuted, exiled people. The vision ends with this description:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.   Isaiah 66:24

Since this language and imagery will get picked up in the NT, it is worth considering it in its original location. Here’s part of the vision it comes from:

As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. 
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
…and it shall be known that the hand of the LORD is with his servants,
and his indignation is against his enemies. 
For the LORD will come in fire,
and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to pay back his anger in fury,
and his rebuke in flames of fire. 
For by fire will the LORD execute judgment,
and by his sword, on all flesh;
and those slain by the LORD shall be many. 
For as the new heavens and the new earth,
which I will make,
shall remain before me, says the LORD;
so shall your descendants and your name remain. 

Isaiah 66:10-16, 22

Isaiah has drawn on many of the elements from the seminal judgement narratives: wrath that brings the joy and relief of deliverance to his people; the destruction of his enemies and theirs; burning fire; a new creation emerging from the uncreation of judgement, a new home for the faithful. This is the symbolic language of the Genesis and Exodus stories.

The vision ends with a reinterpretation of the Red Sea aftermath, where the Israelites looked at the dead bodies of the Egyptians washed up on the beaches:

And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.   Isaiah 66:24

Here the bodies of the slain are envisaged as residing in Tophet, the place for burning refuse outside Jerusalem in the Valley of Ben Hinnom. That was a place of continual fire and smoke. They are envisaged also as buried in the ground, forever eaten by worms.

What does this dual image mean? We have here combined material from a few different sources. We have the Red Sea image of the Israelites viewing the dead bodies on the beaches. And also the overwhelming fire imagery from the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. In the previous chapter, Isaiah 65, God’s anger was ‘a fire that burns all day long’. So the fire here is likely an image of wrath and destruction.

The worm imagery seems to come from the covenant curses in Deuteronomy 28, where both worm and fire are threatened upon Israel. There also, the judgement will be neverending: “These curses will be a sign and a wonder to you and your descendants forever” (Deut 28:46). So the worm probably symbolises the curse of God.

The phrase ‘and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh’ is certainly drawn from the covenant curses, Deuteronomy 28:

You shall become an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.  Your corpses shall be food for every bird  (v.25-26)

You shall become an object of horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the LORD will lead you. (v.37)

By referencing Deuteronomy, Isaiah brings the destruction he is describing under the umbrella of the Mosaic covenant curses. These enemies are specifically Israelites who have turned away from God – the dead bodies belong to ‘the people who rebelled against me.’  Their fate will be exactly what Moses warned it would be.

Pulling all this together, Isaiah here uses traditional imagery – symbolic language if you like – to express the final curse and destruction which is the fate of those Israelites who have turned and become God’s enemies. The viewing of their dead bodies represents the reassurance God’s people will receive that salvation is complete at last – just like at the Red Sea. Those who oppress them are gone. The undying fire and worm express the permanent nature of the judgement. God’s attitude of anger towards these enemies will not relent. Their overthrow and destruction is irreversible. They are pictured as outside, excluded from God’s new creation. This is simply another way to express that they have been ‘blotted out from the earth’, ‘swept away’ (to use the traditional wrath language of Genesis). They won’t be coming back to trouble God’s creation, ever again. End of story. Literally! These seem to be the ideas encoded in the imagery Isaiah borrows.

There is no suggestion here of ongoing conscious torment as a punishment. Isaiah is talking about dead bodies. The idea of souls suffering after the death of the body is, of course, foreign to Isaiah, and should not be imported here.