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

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