Hell 20: Salted with fire

Posted: May 1, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

Jesus taught about hell more than anyone – right? Only one way to answer this: look at his teaching on judgement. It takes some time, but we’re taking the time, to work through the different passages. Now Mark.

Mark uses the imagery of fire in only one passage: chapter 9. Interestingly, it begins with an account of a boy, possessed by an unclean spirit. The spirit casts him into the fire.

Then Jesus imagines another person being thrown into the fire – this time an unquenchable fire, or the fire of Gehenna.

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.  Mark 9:45

Then he changes the image:

For everyone will be salted with fire.    Mark 9:49

We’ve moved on from the person being thrown in: now the fire is something everyone in Israel will experience. It is fire with salt. This probably refers to a sacrificial practice in Israel: grain offerings and perhaps others were offered up and burned mixed with salt (Leviticus 2:13; cf. Ezra 6:9). The salt seems to be a kind of purifying agent. Thus Jesus can go on to say:

Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you flavour it? Have salt in yourselves.     9:50

Jesus seems to be viewing the whole nation as an offering to God. It will all go through the ‘test’ of God’s fire. It had better be a pure offering, salted with salty salt, in order to be acceptable to him. What does the salt represent? Perhaps the last words in the discourse give a hint:

Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.    9:50

For our purposes, we mainly want to notice how fluidly Jesus shapes and morphs his imagery here. From the unquenchable fire of the prophets to the Gehenna fire of his contemporaries to the salted offering fire of Levitical law to bad salt to salt within us. If we insist on taking his teaching ‘literally’, it simply doesn’t achieve coherence. We can’t get a clear idea of what the fire is or who is going to face it. Or of where the salt is. And what the heck is salty fire anyhow?

Rather, we need to realise that Jesus is using the image of fire in the same way the prophets used it: as a flexible metaphor which can be reapplied and combined with other images in various ways to make different points.

How then should we understand this unusual combination of ‘fire’ references? What is the point here? Clearly the possessed boy is being treated as a symbol of a larger reality. Given Jesus’ complaint here against ‘this faithless generation’, the warnings against leaders injuring little ones, and Jesus’ admonition to ‘peace among yourselves’, that larger reality is likely the nation of Israel. Israel is the child possessed by unclean powers, in danger of being thrown into fire. Israel must at all costs rid itself of those elements that are working against its peaceful wellbeing, dragging it down to destruction. It must cast out the demon that makes it stumble. The alternative is unquenchable fire: a favourite prophetic phrase for God’s judgement (see Post 17).

This reading of the passage has the virtue of at least treating it as a coherent message. Perhaps someone can make a case that the afterlife fate of individuals is in view in this teaching – but I suspect the cost will be to lose any coherence and reduce Jesus’ discourse to a collection of fairly random thoughts. In my view, that’s too high a price to pay. I’m going for coherence.

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