Archive for May, 2014

CHAPTER 3        THE WORLD TO COME: THE NEW CREATION

Jesus came announcing God’s kingdom. His miracles proved that he was God’s king. He defeated the powers of this world. But his kingdom has not come in all its fulness yet. Nor has Satan been fully destroyed yet. 

But there is a ‘next world’ coming. It is the new creation. It is future. How is it related to the kingdom Jesus announced? Chappo doesn’t say, but we get the feeling that the next world is God’s kingdom. 

OK, so the book has an eschatological theme. Nice to see an evangelical braving this territory. The wider church has found increasing importance in eschatology over the past century, and we evangelicals have been more or less oblivious. So we welcome this effort to dip in and see what riches there are to mine, what light this theme has to shed on the business of discipleship.

This involves Chappo in some serious theology, he’s been more ambitious than usual here.  And sadly, this is where he runs into real difficulties, and the wheels start to come off his basic model. For Chappo the next world has not yet come. But if that world is God’s kingdom, then Chappo is telling a story in which God’s kingdom has not yet come. Stop and let that sink in.

Doesn’t Chappo see the kingdom as having come at all, in any way? Isn’t the new creation just the tiniest bit realised? If he thinks so, he doesn’t manage to tell us. The rest of the chapter is devoted to describing the new creation, the next world – and it is completely future. Revelation is the NT book where Chappo finds the new creation. Apparently the rest of the NT has little to contribute!

Ok, maybe Chappo’s setting up the present age/future age thing, Jewish style, and then he’s going to tell the story about how Jesus brought the future kingdom of God into the present, ahead of time. You know, the gospel story.

Except he doesn’t tell that story.

Didn’t Jesus inaugurate the age to come at his resurrection? Hasn’t the new creation begun in his risen body? Isn’t this world currently being flooded with God’s Spirit, until it becomes ‘the kingdom of God and of his Christ’ (Revelation 11)? Aren’t there visible signs of the new world’s arrival throughout Jesus’ ministry, and in that of his disciples in Acts?

Chappo seems not to think so. If he does think so, he doesn’t think it important enough to mention. Whatever he’s doing with the ‘two worlds’ thing, the incarnation and the cross don’t seem to challenge or tweek the model much! At the end of the chapter Chappo pictures Paul longing for the new creation which is to come. It remains future.

There’s a big chunk of story missing in Chappo’s book. Maybe he’s trying to keep things brief. But the heart of the thing, the Christological  heart, is missing. The bit where Messiah brings the kingdom. When that’s missing, the story’s too brief! As a result, the eschatological framework remains Jewish, and never becomes distinctively Christian. A simple two-ages model is hardly a satisfactory option for someone who believes in Jesus, the one in whom ‘the ends of the ages have come upon us’  (1 Cor. 10).

Ok, I know Chappo is not exactly a theologian, it seems a bit unfair to judge him on those terms. But the fact is, he’s set himself up to teach the church these theological ideas. What else can we do? Must we not assess the teaching of the teachers?

There’s been a lot of work done on eschatology in the past century, even in Sydney guys like Bill Dumbrell, Peter Bolt and Barry Webb have written insightful stuff – and Chappo does not seem to have profited much from it. In particular he sets out Israel’s eschatological expectations, but fails to identify the cross and resurrection of Jesus as the fulfilment of those expectations. This is no small failing.

We suspect this will have serious consequences for the vision of discipleship which follows.

CHAPTER 2         THIS PRESENT WORLD

Tells the story, from Genesis, of how God’s good world was corrupted by sin. Chappo moves from Genesis to our modern-day experience. Emphasises how the problem has got inside us too. Introduces the devil who ‘deludes, discourages and denounces and distracts us’. However, the devil’s destruction is assured since Christ died at the cross. Chappo asserts this, but there’s no attempt to explain how the cross did it. Once again, the writing is very engaging and pleasant to read. Easy, even.

It’s good that Chappo devotes times and space to the devil. So easily left out of our teaching these days. Good for him. The devil is real and dangerous.

However, Chappo’s take on the devil is a bit on the tame side, a bit…English. Devil comes across more like the school bully than the tormenting, violent creature portrayed in the NT writings. Missing in particular is the NT emphasis on possession: how Satan turns us into devils, how he overpowers and dehumanises us individually and corporately, so that we inflict demonic violence on each other. Chappo’s description is highly individualised. Little idea here of how the demonic is embedded in our institutions and organisations, how we corporately amplify evil. Interestingly, Chappo does later on mention ‘the brutality of oppressive regimes’ – but he does not connect this with the devil. 

Chappo does go beyond the typical evangelical obsession with individual sin: sin here is a world-problem, a threat to the creation itself. Not just ‘I need fixing’ but the creation does.

It’s interesting to see which evils are highlighted by Chappo, what profile he builds up of ‘this world’: wars and terrorism, false religion, depressed and guilty feelings, the distraction of materialism, house-burglary, divorce. It’s a pretty white middle-class view of sin! No mention of greed and the terrible economic inequality it produces. Or of abusive work practices and exploitation of the poor. Racism and pride – missing! Hard-heartedness to the widow and orphan – nope. Slavery, hunger, corruption – not in view. Materialism is seen as a problem for me only: it distracts me. No suggestion that it might affect my neighbour. I can see perhaps Chappo is trying to speak a language older anglo people will readily understand – but this aint exactly prophetic in its punch.

Overall, however, the chapter is convincing that ‘we have a problem’. And he helpfully channels this insight, pointing towards the search for a solution for the misery of the world. That’s a nice place to take it. Let’s hope that this ‘creation’ perspective can be maintained through the book, and that we keep looking for a solution of creation-wide proportions. Sydney guys can’t usually manage that, it usually shrinks down to individual solutions and the creation is forgotten. Hopefully Chappo will do better!

However, once again there’s a tack-on at the end of the chapter: Chappo summarises ‘We see then… I am subject to God’s judgement and under his wrath…’  This is in fact the first mention of God’s wrath. Strange to introduce a new idea in a summary of what has come before! And the idea ‘God’s wrath’ is not explained here either. Why introduce it now? Feels like orthodoxy rearing its ugly head: one suspects Chappo needs to be heard saying wrath somewhere, needs to tick that box. His chapter wasn’t about that. Sticking it in here muddies the flow of thought. Also there’s a tacked on mention at the end of God enabling us to start saying ‘Yes’ to Jesus. No elaboration of this either. Odd: the chapter was sposed to be about what went wrong with this present world…

Alright so I’ve started some easy reading! John Chapman was a local hero of ours. I met him a few times, enjoyed his bible teaching many times. He was an inspirational figure. I’m guessing this little book was his last. Let’s give it a run.

Over the next few days I’ll be posting a review.

CHAPTER 1    NOT FOR WIMPS

This chapter is really an introduction. Chappo is as engaging as ever. His intro draws you in, it’s mostly testimony, his own reflections on what it’s been like living a lifetime following Jesus. ‘Very good – and very hard’: that’s his verdict. Fair enough. It’s the details that make this chapter engaging. Chappo makes the Christian life sound good: his enthusiasm is persuasive.

His book aims to ‘help us see that this constant battle to live a life pleasing to God, is …normal’.

He ends the intro setting up a model where a Christian is a person with a foot in ‘two worlds’: this one and the one to come.  This model comes as a bit of a surprise after a chapter all about living in this world. The world to come is mentioned here but not explained. It seems the book is going to have an ‘eschatology’ dimension. It will be about the ‘tension’ of living in two worlds at once, Chappo tells us.

Presumably this tension is closely related to the ‘constant battle to please God’ – for the book aims to be about both these things.

But we are left wondering how this ‘foot in both worlds’ image relates to Christianity being both good and hard. Is the world to come the good part, and this world the hard bit? Or do both ‘good’ and ‘hard’ relate to this world? In which case, how does the world to come, come into it? 

Or to put it another way around: If the book is about the tension of living in both worlds, why is the intro all about how the Christian life is both ‘good’ and ‘hard’? Is the ‘hard’ part the tension? I suspect that’s the intention here. Christian life is hard because of the tension of living with a foot in each world. And what he means by that image, hopefully will become clear in the chapters ahead.

Warmly written, but a little puzzling so far. This is an intro that doesn’t quite introduce. Perhaps it warms us up, rather than opening up the main theme. What does Chappo have in mind for his book? At the end of chapter 1, the signs are not clear.

Today I have decided to stop reading T. F. Torrance’s Theology in Reconstruction. It is a book of many profound insights into Christian faith. I have struggled through 190 pages of it over the past year, it has taken me too long.

Torrance is writing in a context of ecumenical concerns. He is in touch with the theological trends and discussions across Western and Eastern traditions, and thinks we can learn from them all. TF sees our disunity as partly the result of the different forms in which we express our theology. He pleads for ‘a critical and scientific approach to the basic forms of theological thinking’, leading to ‘positive reconstruction in accordance with them’. He seems to mean a fresh articulation of our Christian faith in a shape and a language derived from the incarnation of Christ. His hope is that as this project of reconstruction is advanced, ‘unity and logical simplicity [will] emerge, theological disagreements begin to fall away, and a steady advance in coherent understanding takes places in continuity with the whole history of Christian thought.’ (Preface).

Torrance’s book is clearly an attempt to reconstruct, at least in outline, some of these ‘basic forms of theological thinking.’ Part 1 deals with methodological issues. Part 2 with Christology – the incarnation seems to be Torrance’s most basic theological category. And Part 3 with the Spirit. This last part I have just skimmed, and decided not to plough through.

It’s an interesting and attractive thesis: that if we could just rephrase and rearticulate our faith in ways more consistent with the revelation God has given us, then we would all find our differences much smaller than we imagined they were.

Anyway, TF has a go at it. I’m not up to writing a proper review, this material is a bit beyond me. But I’ll give some impressions.

What I love about Torrance is his fresh perspective on so many aspects of Christian faith. He keeps pushing me to think differently, and especially to think Christologically, about everything. It’s amazing how many aspects of the faith I am in the habit of thinking about non-Christologically. Repentance, for example.

Torrance’s project is an ambitious one indeed!

I love his emphasis on the incarnation of Jesus, how he brings it to bear on every matter, and gets new insights and structures of thought from it. I think his favourite word is homoousion. Torrance sees deep problems caused by our lack of emphasis on the humanity of Jesus. This theme in the book is very valuable, and really stretching for evangelicals like me.

TiR is chock full of interesting insights. If you’re feeling a bit stale and need stirring up, it may be just the thing for you.

It’s interesting to see him interacting with other traditions such as the Roman Church. He’s not afraid to be blunt about errors he sees there. But he is also willing to affirm the RC tradition and sympathise with some of its objections to Protestantism. TF is just as willing to criticise his own guys as he is the other guys. That’s gotta be good.

I do not love his writing style. Torrance is a bad writer. He is unclear. It takes a lot of effort to follow his train of thought. TF frequently takes apparent logical leaps, which in reality are probably just him not showing us all his working, just giving us the conclusion. Thanks for the brevity, but really it’s hard to be convinced about what he’s saying, without a bit more linear coherence to the argument. He sounds a times like he is making lots of assertions without bothering  to back them up (let alone explain what they mean for the dummies!).

Torrance tends to write in long sentences, laden down with latinized word-forms. It all gets a bit heavy. I often have to read his sentences twice to get the hang of them.

He also assumes a pretty high level of knowledge re philosophy and theology through the ages. Often mentions people and references their doctrinal ideas, without explaining what they were. ‘After what Ockham did to Augustine’s theory of illumination…’  – that sort of thing.

In fact you so often feel like you’re wading through thick swamp with TF.

There is also the question of Torrance’s use of Reformation figures like Calvin and Knox. He tends to quote or reference them as sources of his ideas. But often the ideas sound more like Barth than like Reformers. When there are quotes, it’s not often easy to see how the Reformer is saying what Torrance says he is saying. There are frequent references to the Scottish Reformation writings, which to be honest after a while becomes a little wearing. I think this is mainly because one is left pretty unconvinced about these sources. Torrance would like to present himself as rediscovering the Reformation. But my feeling is he’s extending, sifting and adjusting it. Why not? – that’s a great thing to do, but just, say so. Anyway that was my frequent feeling as I read.

Overall, it’s a bit of a question whether TiR is worth the effort. If there was nothing else to read, I’d say yes it is. But given you could be reading Gunton, Webster, Hauerwas or Gaffin – all of whom are easier to read than Torrance here – and given I’m a slow reader who will only read a finite number of books before I drop off the perch,  I’d say I’m not sure Reconstructing Theology  is worth my time.

I think it’s not one for the dummies. If you are clever and quick and well read in philosophy, it would probably be great.

And now I’m going to read some easier books!

Not angry enough

Posted: May 20, 2014 by J in General

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 1.12.37 PMWe Christians are too nice. Not like God. It’s a theological problem we have. We have this story in our heads about avoiding his wrath. So we never really take it seriously.

In the bible the God of Israel gets angry. Really angry. Here’s why:

How the faithful city
has become a whore!
She that was full of justice,
righteousness lodged in her—
but now murderers
Your silver has become dross,
your wine is mixed with water. 
Your princes are rebels
and companions of thieves.
Everyone loves a bribe
and runs after gifts.
They do not defend the orphan,
and the widow’s cause does not come before them.
  
Therefore says the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel:
Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies,
and avenge myself on my foes! 
I will turn my hand against you;

Isaiah 1:21-25

Israel’s God has no friendly words to speak to people who do these things. He is angry, and he’s going to take action. “I will pour out my wrath on these enemies”.

The prophets and psalm writers are very interested in this. Have you noticed how often they speak from the point of view of the afflicted and downtrodden?  Not many Psalms written from a place of comfort, are there. Effectively the prophets stand with the poor and the widows, and say, ‘Bring it on!’:

Pour out your indignation upon them,
and let your burning anger overtake them. 
May their camp be a desolation;
let no one live in their tents. 

Psalm 69:24-25

David is actually looking forward to God’s wrath arriving. These guys even internalise it, take it into their very hearts:

Prove me, O LORD, and try me;
test my heart and mind. 
I do not sit with the worthless,
nor do I consort with hypocrites; 
I hate the company of evildoers,
and will not sit with the wicked.

Psalm 26:2-4

These people are angry. Angry about what is being done in their country, under the cloak of religion, under the pretence of being God’s covenant people. Angry at the suffering inflicted on the helpless. Angry because they have felt the fire of Yahweh’s anger, and instead of avoiding it, they have taken that fire into their own bellies.

They will have no part in it. When wickedness is in power, oppressing the weak, the prophets will stand with the weak and suffer, rather than with the powerful in comfort. Because that is where Yahweh stands.

There is no idea here of avoiding God’s wrath. Quite the opposite: they are longing for it to come. Though they certainly hope to be on the right side  of it when it arrives.

We Christians today have a different story. Through Jesus we can avoid God’s wrath, and now that that issue is settled, we can relax and be thankful and happy. It’s a story that sets us free from worry. Unfortunately it also tends to set us free from caring. No need to be angry about anything. We can devote ourselves to maximising comfort. Our comfort. Wrath is a thing of the past!

This story doesn’t really give us many cues about how to view other people. Of course it would be good to share the good news with our neighbours, so they can avoid wrath too. But surely we can do that in nice places, among nice people – far away from the poor and the orphan?

Our story makes us very different from the prophets, and from the Old Testament Messiah, David the psalm-writer. We tend to feel a bit uncomfortable about psalms like 69. Can’t quite make them our own.

It makes us very different too from their God. You know, the angry one. Our story makes us – nice.

Come to think of it, our story turns out Christians who are quite different from our Messiah, Jesus, also. Now there was a man with fire in his belly. No pursuit of comfort in that  story.

A man was there who had a withered hand. The synagogue leaders were watching Jesus to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they could accuse him.  But Jesus said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” They were silent.  He looked around at them with hot anger, grieved over their hardness of heart. He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand …”

Mark 3:2-5

Jesus kept that fire alight throughout his life. It was a driving force in all his actions. Often it was hidden from view, smoldering under the surface. With the weak he was as gentle as a lamb. But now and then the fire would flare up, and people would feel its heat. The wrath of God, coming near to bring justice and right wrongs. Jesus embodies it.

By comparison with this Bible-pattern, we modern Christians are too peaceful and comfortable. Too timid and inward looking. Too preoccupied with our little pleasures and troubles. Not angry enough.

Clearly we’ve screwed up pretty badly on our theology of God’s wrath. Isn’t it time we stopped dreaming of avoiding it? Isn’t it time we stopped being so nice, and got some fire in our bellies also? Something that might drive us out of ourselves, to live lives that matter?

Hell 25: Conclusions

Posted: May 14, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Piss-weak. That’s how I’d summarise the exegetical evidence  for the traditional doctrine of hell.

We’re ready to summarise what we’ve found in this survey of hell-related passages in the NT. It’s gone on so long, by now you’ve probably started to believe in the reality of everlasting torment(!)

We prefaced this survey by saying that the shape and direction of biblical eschatology led us to expect the total destruction of evil and the complete renewal of the creation to a final state of blessedness – rather than the continuance of a ‘torture chamber’ down in the dungeons of the kingdom. It led us to expect a future that is embodied and material – rather than one for disembodied souls.

However, sometimes the Bible surprises us. So we wanted to see if the NT taught anything about the punishment of the wicked that clearly altered this direction, or overturned this view of the new creation. In particular we were interested in the intertestamental doctrine of Gehenna, which Jesus inherited from his culture. It’s not in the OT, but we were looking for any sign that Jesus or his apostles were buying into this new doctrine, treating it as a reality.

We’ve tried to be open to the possibility, willing to rethink. We’ve patiently sifted a bunch of NT teaching. We haven’t covered it all. Wenham identified a few different categories of passage, that related to this question of hell. One of them was references to anguish. We haven’t exhausted that lead. What we have tried to do thoroughly is examine the use of ‘fire’ imagery and other explicit Gehenna images, in connection with judgement.

The results have been underwhelming. What we’ve found is a decided lack of interest in Gehenna. Jesus mentions it in passing, uses it as the frame for a parable, but always when speaking about something else. He just doesn’t seem to have anything to say about Gehenna itself. Paul doesn’t seem to even know about Gehenna, he’s so silent on the subject. For him judgement = destruction. Likewise John’s Gospel is silent. The other NT writers make it clear, on the rare occasions when they use the imagery of hell and fire, that they are treating it as part of the stock of symbolic language they have inherited from the prophets, and which they feel free to adapt and apply freely to make their own theological points.

Gehenna is almost never let loose anywhere other than in metaphorical territory. Jesus has it in parables and such-like. John has it as part of the dense symbolic fabric of Revelation. These guys are using Gehenna imagery as symbols. Symbols of the terrible reality of judgement: but still, symbols.

No one seems keen to come out and teach Gehenna.

What they do teach, throughout the NT, is the destruction of God’s enemies on the day Christ is revealed. This is a strong emphasis, and deserves to be heard.

Not only that, but importantly, Luke subverts the Gehenna tradition by having the fires of hell poured out here on earth. In my view this is a decisive re-asserting of the prophetic eschatology of the OT Scriptures. In the prophets, God’s judgement was always something to be experienced in this world.

We already suspected that the traditional Gehenna doctrine ran counter to biblical theology. It turns out it runs counter to Luke’s message in particular.

All in all, there’s so little here on which to build a doctrine of Gehenna, that it’s a bit of a worry. Certainly nothing like the strong clear teaching we would need, to redirect the whole course of biblical eschatology. Nothing here one tenth that strong.

There may be other Scriptures that clearly establish this doctrine without referring to Gehenna or fire directly. But if there are, no one seems to be saying so.

There are good theological reasons to question this doctrine. At the big-picture level, the problem with Hell is ultimately a worldview problem. Hell is the answer to the wrong question. ‘What happens to our souls in eternity?’ is not a question that would have meant much to anyone who believed in new creation. Hell fits with a disembodied ‘spirit’ future, but not so well with a resurrection future.

Think about our biblical theology, and the story it tells. Look at the picture at the top of this post. Is that really how the bible story ends up – God’s final purpose for his creation? I wouldn’t have thought so. Doesn’t the story of redemption project forward into a new world from which every trace of opposition to God has been judged and eradicated? No pit of furious, teeth-gnashing skeleton-souls. Nothing but the glory of God, covering the whole earth? That’s how it reads to me, anyhow.

So, I’m left thinking, after this lengthy search, that it’s time for some serious questions to be asked.

We evangelicals are supposed to get our beliefs from Scripture, yes? Trinity, incarnation, atonement, church, free grace, justification, judgement, return of Christ – all truths we believe because we find them clearly in the good book.

So what about Gehenna? Is this a legitimate family member – or is it a cuckoo’s egg that got sneaked into the nest? If that latter, then should we tolerate it there any longer?

We’ve seen how it came into popularity between the testaments. Only Luke took the trouble to actually subvert it. And we don’t pay much attention to Luke. But it concerns me that no one else in the NT seems to be promoting this teaching, either. Why are we holding on to it?

I get it, our forefathers believed it, and we want to be faithful to their faith. Some of us even imagine our forefathers were able to establish an authoritative orthodoxy that would rule the church for all time. So we must stick with their teachings no matter what.

There’s also the fact that Hell fits in nicely with the Greek cosmological heritage we love so much in the West, with all its dualisms (corruptible body vs immortal soul, life vs afterlife, heaven vs hell, etc). Plus, it scares the heck out of sinners, so we find it kind of useful. And now that the liberals reject it, Hell has become a handy litmus test for ‘orthodoxy’ as well. It’s just so familiar and useful.

Do we, then, just believe in Hell because we’ve always believed it, and because it suits us to believe it?

If your a Catholic person that’s ok. But guys, if you’re evangelical it’s a big problem. Is the church the rule of your belief – or is it Scripture? If it’s Scripture, then at times we’re going to have to disappoint our fathers. At times, even if they are all admiring the emperor’s clothes, you are going to have to point out that he ain’t wearin any. It could be that this is one such time.

If so, then man up, evangelicals. Perhaps its time the reformation arrived at Hell.

More work is definitely needed here. Closer and also broader study. Our findings here are far from conclusive.

But at the very least I think there deserves to be a big question mark over the doctrine of hell. I reckon we should be printing HANDLE WITH CAUTION labels over it. Because of the question about exegetical underpinning, and because of the tension between this doctrine and biblical eschatology. We’ve backed away from the immortality of the soul, that frees us up to question the other side of that coin, too: Hell.

I don’t know about annihilationism. It seems a bit over-specific to me. I’m not sure if Scripture teaches that the destruction of God’s enemies will be immediate or instantaneous. Judgement will clearly be a conscious experience that brings distress to God’s enemies. I’m not advocating annihilationism as such. What I’m pretty sure of is: I can’t find the Bible teaching the everlasting torment of disembodied souls.

Hell 24: The smoke of their torment

Posted: May 9, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

The most confronting image of judgement in the NT is probably that in Revelation 14.

John of Patmos brings together a bunch a OT images to paint this picture of the judgement of the enemies of the lamb:

Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands,   they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, 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 worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”     Revelation 14:9   

Let’s see if we can identify the images. This should help us get a sense of what John was trying to say by employing them.

The much-used imagery of ‘the beast’ comes from Daniel ch.7. It is a metaphor from Daniel’s store of apocalyptic images. It represents the enemies of Israel, under the control of dark powers, who fight against God.

The ‘cup of the wine of God’s wrath‘ is from Jeremiah 25.  The prophet is given a cup of wine and told to make various nations drink it. The result is the devastation of those nations by the sword. Obviously this did not literally happen: it is a visionary image of judgement on the nations.

Fire and sulfur‘ is a traditional description of the wrath of God being poured out. It originates with Sodom and Gomorrah, but recurs throughout the OT. It pretty much always stands for complete destruction. The image also recurs throughout Revelation.

The image of ‘smoke going up‘ also comes from Sodom and Gomorrah. However the particular version here in Revelation, ‘smoke going up forever and ever‘ is taken from Isaiah 34, which details the destruction of Edom:

And the streams of Edom shall be turned into pitch,
and her soil into sulfur;
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;         Isaiah 34:8-9
Once again we are dealing with prophetic imagery: Isaiah’s hearers were not to expect the whole land to become a lake of burning pitch. Rather, the point of the description is that Edom would go the way of Sodom and Gomorrah. Its destruction would be final and irrevocable. The land of Edom would be left waste forever, a place of thorns, a home for jackals.

The description of the followers of the beast as having ‘no rest‘ contrasts with the martyrs, mentioned immediately after. It comes from Isaiah 57:

Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the LORD;

and I will heal them. 
But the wicked are like the tossing sea
that cannot rest;
its waters toss up mire and mud. 
There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked.         Isaiah 57:19-21

This vivid comparison of the wicked with heaving seas expresses the emotional content of the future that awaits them. God’s people will be restored and healed by Yahweh, but the wicked ones will miss out and remain in turmoil. There is of course no concept of an afterlife functioning in this or any of Isaiah’s prophecies: it is the future of earthly people groups that is in view.

John brings all these prophetic images together in a description of toxic intensity: a place of ongoing fiery torment, where the wicked have no rest. The resulting picture would have been easily recognisable to first century listeners as the popular idea of Gehenna, or Tartarus. This is one of the very few places in the Scriptures that such a picture can be found, so we should consider it carefully.

Though John does seem to be tapping into this popular imagery, he has made his intentions tolerably clear by building up his picture using quotes from the Hebrew prophets. His interests and concerns are those of the prophetic tradition – the concerns outlined above. The afterlife is scarcely one of them.

In their original prophetic settings these images were used as metaphors. Here they are gathered together in a context that is overtly symbolic, drawing freely on a variety of OT metaphors. The wine is ‘the wine of anger’, and the cup is ‘the cup of his wrath’. John is signalling to us that he is dealing in metaphors.

What do the metaphors mean, then? The message of John’s third angel seems to be that all the judgements foreseen in the prophets are now being realised.

It is worth noticing that later John reuses some of these images in describing the destruction of Babylon, in ch.18-19:

And the kings of the earth, who committed fornication and lived in luxury with her, will weep and wail over her when they see the smoke of her burning;  they will stand far off, in fear of her torment.  Revelation 18:9-10

Once more they said,  “Hallelujah!   The smoke goes up from her forever and ever.”    Revelation 19:3

As so often before, here also we see how the prophetic imagery is used and reused flexibly depending on the needs of the situation.

If in spite of this context we are determined to read this as a literal description, then we will find here evidence of the reality of Gehenna. We have finally found somewhere in the Scriptures that teaches our traditional doctrine of Hell.

If we want to take this approach, then to be fair in our reading we would also have to say that this Hell is a place for people who have a trade mark on their foreheads, which indicates that they follow a real beast with two horns. And also that, once in hell, they drink wine from a cup there, while a lamb watches. Also that only 144 000 people will escape this fate, as that is the number who got the lamb’s forehead mark instead of the beast’s.

If we are not willing to say that, then perhaps we can recognise that, just like every other biblical writer, John of Patmos uses these images of judgement as a symbolic language to communicate his message about the judgement of God. God’s enemies face the terrible prospect of being paid back the shame and destruction they dished out to the saints: a destruction which this time is complete, final, and deserved.

Paul doesn’t have much to say about what it will be like for God’s enemies when Jesus shows up: not much detail, that is. This is about the fullest description we get:

…when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.   These will pay the price: eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might…     2 Thessalonians 1:7-9

There is the traditional image of fire. The fire is coming from heaven to earth, as at Sodom and Gomorrah. Gehenna-fire falling on earth was the dominant image of judgement in Luke, we saw in a recent post. Paul paints the same picture as Luke.

The fire here is associated with ‘the face of the Lord.’ Here ‘the lord’ is clearly Jesus. But the image echoes Daniel 7, where the fire came from the Ancient of Days, who sat surrounded by attendants:

his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames,
and its wheels were burning fire. 
A stream of fire issued
and flowed out from his face.        Daniel 7:9-10
 

The fire streams out from his face to bring judgement on his enemies.

Paul rejigs this image: now it is Jesus in the role of Ancient of Days, complete with fiery face. The highest possible Christology is clearly functioning here.

The result for the enemies is also as it was in Daniel 7: they are completely destroyed. The word ‘destruction’ (Greek olethron) is only ever used in the NT to mean destruction. In Daniel 7 the destruction was ‘to the end’ (7:26): ie. destruction from which there is no coming back. The same idea seems to be in view here with Paul’s phrase ‘eternal destruction.’

The whole phrase ‘from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might’ is taken from Isaiah 2, where it is repeated several times. There the Lord’s face is the source or agent of destruction. The people are pictured trying to hide from that face and that terrifying, glory-filled power. They hide in caves etc.

The common translation ‘away from the presence of the Lord’, while grammatically possible, doesn’t really do justice to the whole scene or its prophetic background. This reading pictures the destruction in terms of banishment or isolation from God – which is probably the opposite of Paul’s intention. Being away from this presence is what they would like!  In Isaiah 2 and Daniel 7 the terrifying thing is the face itself. The people cannot escape it. It is that face which brings the peoples down to shame, and which destroys the beast..

Paul is trading on the ambiguity of the preposition apo (‘from’). It can be used to mean ‘away from’. But it can also be used of a source or cause:

He was heard because of (Greek. apo) his piety.  Hebrews 5:7

Grace to you and peace from (apo) God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Romans 1:7

his divine nature…has been understood and seen from (apo) the things he has made. Romans 1:20

It fits the context much better to translate here in 2 Thes. 1, ‘destruction from the face of the Lord‘ or if you must paraphrase, then ‘destruction in the presence of the Lord‘. There is no other place where the punishment occurs: it takes place right here in the sight of the King. This is the fate of the enemies of the Christ.

This is as close as Paul comes to teaching a doctrine of Gehenna. It’s not very close, is it. Going from the Pauline corpus of writings alone, Paul sounds more like an annihilationist.

We didn’t find much interest in teaching the doctrine 0f Gehenna, in the Gospels. Let’s try the epistles.

Jude does a big line in warning about coming judgement.

Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.  And the angels who did not keep their own position, but left their proper dwelling, he has kept in eternal chains in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great Day.   Likewise, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural lust, serve as an example, suffering a judgement of eternal fire.     Jude 5-7.

These are three parallel examples of people experiencing judgement for sin. Jude connects them explicitly, with his ‘likewise’, inviting us to view them as parallel. Let’s do that.

The first refers to the destruction of the entire generation of Israelites who left Egypt at the exodus. From Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The second tells a story found in the apocryphal book 1 Enoch, which was popular in the times of the early church. Probably based on Genesis 6:1, it details the punishment in chains of angels who tried to cross-breed with humans. These are imprisoned in darkness until the day of judgement.

Their chains are described as eternal chains (Greek aidios). There is a lot of argument about what these ‘eternal’ words mean: aidios and aionios. Here it’s pretty clear that it doesn’t mean ‘everlasting’, since Jude specifically says that this state is temporary: ‘until the day of judgement.’

The third judgement is from Genesis 19. The destruction of those cities is describes as ‘a judgement of eternal fire.’  This is very similar to the prophetic usage of ‘eternal’ or ‘unquenchable’ fire, as an unstoppable fire that completely destroys. Clearly that is the sense of ‘eternal’ (Greek aionios) here, where the fire completely destroys the cities of the plain. This fire is not being viewed as ‘everlasting’. It is also a prophetic usage to treat Sodom and Gomorrah as the archetypal or exemplary recipients of God’s judgement against the wicked (cf. Isaiah 1:9, 13:19; Jeremiah 49:18; Amos 4:11).

This is a significant reference, showing yet another NT figure who can speak of ‘eternal fire’ with an OT sense, apparently not thinking of the intertestamental Gehenna tradition.

N.B. The NIV translation ‘they serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire’, is an interpretive translation that stretches the grammar a bit. There is no ‘of those who‘ in the Greek. You would only translate like this to avoid the annihilationist implications of Jude’s ‘eternal fire’ usage, i.e. the NIV translation arises out of assumptions that the NT teaches the doctrine: “Eternal fire = Hell”. The translation above is followed by many recent versions (NRSV, HCSB, NET, etc), and is a more natural rendering of the Greek original.

Hell 21: The baptism of fire

Posted: May 4, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

What Luke does with the imagery of fire is more radical and interesting than any other biblical writer. It may disturb you.

Luke gives us, from John the Baptist, the traditional ‘Gehenna‘-type image of fire as something you get thrown into:

every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”   3:9

But more prominent and distinctive of Luke’s emphasis is the other way John uses the image:

 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptise you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.    3:16

For Luke this baptism seems to be an image of inundation, of drenching – as we will see. This time, the fire is thrown onto the person, not the other way round. The original of this image is of course the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where fire fell from heaven. In the next sentence John connects this baptism-of-fire image with the usage of the OT prophets, calling it ‘unquenchable fire’ (3:17). The fire that Messiah will baptise with is the fire of God’s judgement.

The next time fire crops up, it is in the minds of the disciples. A Samaritan village expresses its hostility to Jews by refusing to welcome Jesus:

When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them.    9:54-5

This is the inundation image again. No doubt the disciples have in mind Elijah’s example (2 Kings 1). But they are clearly on the wrong track. Jesus has no wish to destroy this village with fire. Was John the Baptist on the wrong track then?

Interestingly, having rebuked the disciples for wanting to call down fire, Jesus later says,

“I came to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!     12:49

This language of fire being kindled (Gr. root apto) is a common prophetic image for the arrival of God’s wrath, especially characteristic of the prophet Jeremiah (LXX). The fire Jesus is longing for is the fire of judgement. But Luke is emphasising that the Gehenna-fire of God is not something awaiting people in an afterlife: it is much more real and immediate than that. Jesus program is to pour out Gehenna on earth.

This saying sets the readers’ expectations for Jesus’ ministry: we are waiting to see that fire kindled. And yet the disciples were rebuked! A puzzle.

Jesus then goes straight on to say:

 I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed!”  12:50

 These are parallel sayings. They have the same structure:

I intend X event to occur, and I am impatient for it to happen.

In other words ‘to bring fire on earth’ and ‘my baptism’ are two ways of speaking of the same event. John the Baptist had said Messiah would bring a baptism of fiery judgement and of the Spirit: now Jesus says that he himself must go through it first. And that he is impatient to do so!

This is a shocking moment in Luke’s gospel. There is little explanation of the meaning of the cross in Luke, but this is a moment of revelation when we finally begin to understand what Jesus has in mind in travelling to Jerusalem. This saying of Jesus, more than anything else in Luke, shapes our understanding of his passion.

Later still Jesus is threatening exactly the sort of judgement which he had rebuked his disciples for suggesting:

But on the day that Lot left Sodom, it rained fire and sulphur from heaven and destroyed all of them —it will be like that on the day that the Son of Man is revealed.    Luke 17:29-30

 It is not easy to see how Jesus’ message about ‘fire from heaven’ hangs together! But it seems to hang together in his own person.

We the readers are waiting for the fire on earth to be kindled, as is Jesus himself. As soon as his enemies put their plot into action and arrest him, Luke signals that the time for this event has arrived:

Then they seized him and led him away into the high priest’s house. When they had kindled (Gr. root aptoa fire in the middle of the court and sat down together, Peter sat among them.    22:54-55

It is an interesting scene: Jesus being held by the armed temple police in the court (Gr. aule) of the big boss of the Jewish establishment. Interesting because Jesus has already described this scene earlier:

When a strong man, fully armed, guards his court (aule), his property is safe.  But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder.   11:21-22

When Jesus enters the high priest’s courtyard, he appears to be a prisoner in serious trouble. But if we have been following Luke’s narrative, the clues are there that it is the high priest who is in trouble. He cannot guard his court any longer, for a stronger man has arrived who has brought fire upon his court. This prisoner that he has allowed in, is the one who has come to bring fire on earth, and now we get to see it kindled right here in the headquarters of the Jerusalem establishment. In this encounter, the high priest stands to lose everything.

But first, Jesus himself must go through the fires of judgement. For the fire he has come to bring is the one with which he himself must be baptised. And so we follow Jesus through an extended judgement narrative, in which he relives the story of Israel’s exile, handed over to the Gentiles and left to die in the darkness.

It seems the disciples’ mistake about calling down fire, was to imagine they could call it down on others, especially on foreigners!. Whereas Jesus’ program begins with the fire falling on himself and his people, and on Israel. He will not make others take responsibility for human evil until he has first borne the weight of it in his own body. The world cannot be baptised until Messiah is first. 

The agent of this fiery judgement was always the Spirit of God. And this fire-Spirit which condemns is also the Spirit which vindicates and raises up. Jesus now lives and stands in the realm of God’s judging Spirit, purified through the flames. Jesus has not escaped from the fire: rather he has entered into it. But the fire-Spirit is now experienced by Messiah as an empowering gift.

Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, having received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.  Acts 2:33 

 And this fire is also poured out on his followers:

And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.    Acts 2:2-4

For the righteous who stand with Messiah, and place themselves on the right side of God’s judgement, the Spirit falls on them as a did on Jesus: as an empowering gift of fire: 

“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”   Luke 24:48

Luke has one last fire-kindling to show us: the contribution of Paul to building the fire. As Paul went around announcing the judgement of God arriving at the cross, the fire Spirit fell in each place. The whole world was being kindled in this blaze. This was a source of great offence to the Jews, who considered the nations unfit for inclusion in God’s holy Spirit. The man who polluted the holy people in this way was the worst of criminals, worthy of death. And the Messiah he proclaimed was a disgrace. Paul, like Jesus, felt the heat! Luke sums up Paul’s ministry in a fire-building scene which comes just before his trial in Rome:

Since it had begun to rain and was cold, they kindled a fire and welcomed all of us around it. Paul had gathered a bundle of brushwood and was putting it on the fire, when a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “This man must be a murderer; though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.”  He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were expecting him to swell up or drop dead, but after they had waited a long time and saw that nothing unusual had happened to him, they changed their minds…   Acts 28:2-6

The whole of Paul’s ministry, the attacks he suffered from the murderous Jewish authorities, the slanders against him, and his vindication by God, are all symbolised neatly in this final fire-kindling narrative. The fire is arriving in Rome!

[A note to the engineers among our readers: I know you don’t like this sort of thing. It’s not how you yourself would go about telling a story. But unfortunately Luke, like all the biblical writers and their readers too, were in the habit of including symbolism in their narratives. They simply didn’t feel the need to always make their points in plain propositional sentences. These writers lived a long time ago in a very different culture, and they have their own ways of getting their message across. Sorry, you’ll just have to get used to it! 🙂 ]