A little more than a month ago, a newly-published Bible translation came to my attention, and I was able to get a copy of it. The Voice, a translation commissioned by Chris Seay and the Ecclesia Society, is an interesting approach to translation that I believe is quite good, for what it seeks to be.
Before I go on, it’s probably best to get some comments out of the way about Bible translation.
A Messy Business
Unless you happen to speak fluent Hebrew, Greek and a smattering of Aramaic, you have to depend on somebody to translate the Bible for you. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 words in the English language, whereas there are only about 80,000 words in the Hebrew language, with only about 8,000 different Hebrew words used in the Bible. Because of this, translators have to make lots of choices, informed by their own theology, as to what words and phrases they will use in English to approximate the words and phrases used in Hebrew/Greek. As a result of this, whenever a translation is published, its language pattern is somewhat dated as time goes by (think of the Shakespearean English of the KJV compared to our day-to-day English).
In some cases, there is no real equivalent word in English, or a word is used as a special title, so the translators choose to transliterate the word, creating a “new” English word. Examples of this are “Christ” and “baptism”. In other cases, there are examples of wordplay in the original languages that are difficult to translate into English, so they translators have to decide between translating “word for word” (sometimes called “literal” translation) and translating “thought for thought”. Other translators want to give readers a more narrative or “readable” version, so they choose to include some level of paraphrase in a “dynamic” translation.
Each type of translation has its own strengths and weaknesses. It is important for Christians, as the readers of each translation, to understand what type of translation they are reading, why they are reading it, and not to try to make the translation to something it is not meant to do. So long as you keep this in mind, there is really no such thing as
a “best” translation. If you are doing a word study, a dynamic translation is a poor choice. If you are looking for a version to read out loud, or for a 90-day-through-the-Bible plan, a word-for-word translation will be frustrating for the reader.
Some folks get their panties in a twist over translations, claiming theirs is the only legitimate one (i.e. the KJV-only crowd) or they go the legalistic route of declaring the use of certain translations (or paraphrases) as sinful. They all miss the point.
A Unique Voice
Probably the most well-known dynamic translation is The Message, a translation written by Eugene Peterson. While it is more a paraphrase than a translation, The Message gives us Scripture in late-20th-Century English.
The Voice, also a dynamic translation, sits somewhere between The Message and thought-for-thought translations, like the New Living Translation. A group of 120 individuals were involved in translating the original texts into The Voice. Initially, a group of about 80 pastors, artists, musicians, writers and poets translated the Bible into literary/readable manuscript and then gave it to a group of 40 Biblical scholars. Members of the translation team came from a cross-section of modern, orthodox Christianity, representing a healthy diversity of denominational backgrounds.
They wanted to have both intellectual rigor in translating from the original languages along with an artistic eye to assist modern readers in accessing Scripture. This meant that they would have to make some choices, some of which contained no small measure of controversy.
Probably the most discussed choice they made was with the word “Christ” – a transliteration of the Greek word Christos, which was, itself, a translation of the Hebrew word for “Messiah”, which also meant “Anointed One”. The translators of The Voice chose to translate this word, instead of transliterating it, as “the Anointed One”, or – when referring to Jesus’ role – as “The Anointed One, the Coming King”. I remember a friend of mine who thought that “Christ” was Jesus’ last name (and that his parents were Jesus and Mary Christ), and this mistake is not uncommon. The translators of The Voice sought to prevent this problem, as well, bringing cries of pain from the expected quarters of ODM-land.
Even so, this seems like a good choice.
Probably one of my favorite aspects of The Voice is that the translators chose to differentiate between the direct translation and the paraphrase by italicizing the paraphrased words. In many cases, as well, the paraphrase pulls in referenced facts from earlier in Scripture (to remind the reader what the writer is referring back to)
or to call out something that is
foreshadowing later events.
Another feature of The Voice is that it is written in “screenplay” format, where speakers are called out in highlighted text (as if in a screenplay), which is very helpful in many of the conversation-heavy portions of Scripture.
If you are looking for a dynamic translation, I would recommend The Voice as superior to The Message – both for its readability and for the increased rigor in the translation. I would
recommend that you download the New Testament portion of The Voice, which is available for free at the publisher, here, and try it out for yourself. (NOTE: You may have to add “.pdf” to the end of the file, depending on the browser you are using.)
Remember, though, if you’re looking to do a word study or teach a Bible Study, you should look to use a “word-for-word” or even a “thought-for-though” translation. But if you’re looking to read through the Bible, or for a dynamic translation for other purposes, The Voice fits the bill very well.
Lost in the furor over
hell (primarily) and heaven (secondarily) in last year’s Love Wins, by Rob Bell, (and its excellent companion volume) was the underlying thesis about God’s love, and its primary quality evident in man: libertarian free will. What differentiated man from the angels, and the primary evidence of God’s love for man in His creation of him was the true gift of free will: the permission/ability given to man by God to choose whether or not to accept or reject Him.
As Paul writes:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
Throughout the Christian Scriptures, Jesus and his Apostles make clear the fundamental difference between the Law and the Spirit. Jesus’ primary beef with the Pharisee party was that it had built up a series of regulations, or “hedges”, around the law to prevent anyone from possibly breaking it. Yet, in doing so, even though they followed the letter of the law, their hearts were not changed. The Law, itself, was not evil, but it could not change the hearts of men. Jesus’ teaching on the importance of loving God with all of oneself, and loving their neighbor was one of freedom, not coercion. Later, Paul noted that what we eat does not make us sinful, but if we abuse our freedom in a way that hurts others, we are sinning – not against a law, but against God’s desire.
And so, we have freedom – liberty.
It is God’s desire that we should love Him, but we can also reject Him.
It is God’s desire that we should care for the poor, but we can insulate ourselves and never even meet them – or, at best, send them a check.
It is God’s desire that we should be generous, but we can keep our blessings for ourselves.
It is God’s desire that we should have joy and contentment in Him, but we can be dissatisfied with what we have and covet.
It is God’s desire that we should be open and honest, but we can be insular, closed and secret.
It is God’s desire that we should care for our earthly bodies, but we can abuse them, to our own detriment.
It is God’s desire that we should love our neighbor, but we can despise them because they are different that we are.
The aim of God’s desire cannot be legislated, because the heart cannot be changed by a law. Compliance is
America the Free?
For all of the things they got wrong, the founders of America got at least one primary concept right – an underlying principle that eventually eroded the most glaring error of those fathers: the allowance of slavery
That principle was this: Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is Liberty
The only rights held by men were those given by God, not the government. The purpose of the government was to protect those rights, not to grant them. Those rights, given by God, would allow free men to choose whether to do good or to do ill. The laws of the land only existed to prevent people from depriving other people of those God given rights:
Freedom of expression – whether in support of God or against Him.
Freedom to worship God – or to reject Him.
Freedom to associate with anyone else – or to reject them.
Freedom to own property – whether or not one was a godly steward with it.
Freedom to live and to work – or to be lazy and die. The freedom to succeed, or to fail.
These freedoms, given by God, as we all should know from our own experience, do not guarantee outcomes. An evil person may prosper and a good person may suffer. Even so, it is the freedom, itself, that is a gift and is a reflection of the Spirit of the Lord.
Recently, I’ve read The Tragedy of American Compassion, by Marvin Olasky, which traces the roots of charity in America and its drifting from its original purpose (to help those in poverty to help themselves in escaping those conditions) to its present manifestation (which actually enslaves those it desires to “help”). Olasky points out that charity is shared, personal, one-to-one suffering with those who are in need, not blind handouts, and that for almost a century and a half, the church managed the care for the poor far more effectively that the government could do, or has done since.
One of the things most clear to me, in reading it, is that many of us have shifted our reliance on God as the source of rights to reliance on the government to secure our rights. While the Spirit of the Lord only guarantees us freedom, government seeks to guarantee our success and to outlaw failure. In doing so, it has enslaved many – even in the church – and is doomed to fail, in the name of “compassion”.
We have taken the words of the Psalmist:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.
And we have altered them to be:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains— where does my help come from? My help comes from Washington, the righter of wrongs.
And we now suffer for it.
The church used to care for the poor and the sick and the needy. (How many hospitals are named after various Saints?) Now we don’t need to, because Washington has it taken care of.
The church used to care for widows and orphans, but now the government has it taken care of.
The church used to care for the elderly (and to instruct families to care for their parents and grandparents), but now we’ve got Social Security and Medicare to take care of that for us.
The church used to help those who suffered from failure. Now we have Uncle Sam to bail us out:
Banks fail, but don’t worry, Washington will bail them out.
Car companies fail because they churn out crap cars with overpriced labor governed by byzantine rules, but don’t worry, Washington will bail them out.
People who bought houses they couldn’t afford with money they didn’t have go bankrupt, and we cry out to Washington to bail them out, as well.
All in the name of “compassion”.
But really, now, let’s get a clue. There is absolutely no such thing as government “charity” – Charity is something freely given in direct accordance and relationship with the person receiving it. Taking money from Peter, under coercion, for the sake of “compassion” on Paul is an abomination that sets up the agent of “compassion” as the true god of those who support it. At that point, God is no longer the guarantor of rights. He is now absent from the transaction.
And we all suffer for it.
But the church can’t handle the need is a cop out and an utter lack of faith in a God who parted the seas, ruptured the grave, fed the masses and rescued the lost. It is the voice of despair from the acolytes of the church of man in support of a system that is doomed to failure. “But the church can’t handle the need” is the cry of the
Baal worshiper in the face of Elijah. It is a story nearly as old as the Bible, like the prophet of God, Balaam, who sold out to His enemies because he thought he was choosing the winning side.
We have become a Pharisee nation, where we feel we must regulate the hearts of men, lest they make a bad decision.
Smoking is bad for you, so we must ban you from smoking.
Trans-fat is bad for you, so we must ban you from eating it.
Wearing a seat belt is good for you, so we must require you to do it.
Health insurance is good for you, so we must require you to buy it.
And on and on.
The only help the church and the people of America need from Washington is for it to become utterly inconsequential in their lives. Allow the church to become the church and stop trying to regulate away failure and legislate the hears of men. It won’t work, so stop trying.
I don’t believe that God chose you, and blessed you so that you could heap those blessings up upon yourself. I believe God chose you, and you, and you, and every one of you others because He wants to make a difference in this world. And you know what? what I think is scary about God is He didn’t come up with any ‘Plan B.’ That He left the Church here, and the Church is the only group of people, and the Church is the only institution in the world that can bring about a change. This government cannot do it, so stop depending on the government. Educational systems cannot do it, so stop trusting educational systems. The Church was chosen by God to make a difference. – Rich Mullins
In the past day or so, I’ve had a friend who sent me a couple of links to articles on Cracked.com (Warning: NSFW language) with some interesting observations. His first was this one, based on this Cracked article:
I was reading an article about how good news no one talks about is out there. One of those
the gulf’s recovery from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It made this point:
“What we will talk about is how no one expected fish, crab and shrimp catches to be average compared to past years or that oil chomping microbes would go to town feeding on our disaster. And more importantly, the Loop Current that was on track to carry the oil to the Florida Keys just broke. As in, it broke off into a big swirly hilariously named Franklin Eddy, which unexpectedly contained the oil in a tidy circle of cool. We’d like to think of Franklin as a bongo-playing beat poet who doesn’t have to play by your current rules, maaan.
Had it not been for Franklin, the oil would have hit the Keys and made its way up the East Coast, and there wouldn’t have been a whole lot we could have done to stop it. Thanks to Franklin, which no longer exists, much of the Florida coast was spared from the oil altogether.”
I don’t really have much of a point except to say maybe the hand of God is was
in this. Its nice to remember this when life fights dirty.”
I found this profound for a couple of reasons: First off, it is a demonstration of how God is such an awesome engineer (says the professional engineer), who has contingency plans within contingency plans within contingency plans for when we make things go awry. Secondly, it just reminded me how negative I sometimes feel when I listen to too much news – because bad news sells, so we rarely hear good news (or Good News) from the news media.
The second article, 7 “Ancient” Forms of Mysticism That are Recent Inventions, made me laugh even more:
Yoga as we know it today — a set of postures (asanas) combined with breathing techniques — dates back to around the grand old year of 1960. In other words, yoga is as old as Bono.
So all of the Yoga wars that have been fought “for
God” by Johnny Mac an others are all just pretty much (as previously noted) bunk.
So, maybe quoting Cracked.com from time to time is a little bit like quoting Cretin poets.
One of the several views of pareschatology Rob Bell puts forth in Love Wins is that of Universal Reconciliation (which I have spent buckets of digital ink arguing against, when it was presented as a certainty, so I don’t want to re-hash those arguments). Even though he doesn’t ultimately espouse UR as his view of the
afterlife, Bell makes this comment about this view (that – in the end – God will find a way to save everyone, through His love and persistence):
“Whatever objections a person might have to [Universal Reconciliation], and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it.” (111)
Scot McKnight, following up on this observation of Rob’s had this to say:
I recently talked with a significant Christian evangelical leader in the
USA who said this to me: “If you don’t long for that, you need to spend more time with God.” And he was most decidedly not a universalist.
And the leader Scot spoke to was right. As Christians, it should be our desire that God might find a way that nobody would spend eternity in hell – be it literal fire, eternal conscious torment, empty separation or annihilation. As one writer put it:
While I do believe in a literal hell for those who do not have a relationship with Christ,
I take no pleasure in that. Is it Christian to take satisfaction in people going to hell, or would you be ok with God devising a means that everyone made it? I will have no disappointment in discovering that people that I didn’t think would make it, made it, because I am fully convinced that God is just and will do right.
With this as a background, it now brings me to a question, a lament and a thought.
The Question, the Lament and the Thought
Quite often in the discussion since Love Wins‘ publication, I have seen/heard the basic question:
If God saves everyone in the end, what is the point of following Him now?
I’ve seen this question, and its variations, in multiple articles and comment threads, and – in particular – howled by some of the harsher critics. And I have to say … Really? So Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection are meaningless if nobody ends up being tortured forever?
And what’s funny is that, in the past I’ve observed that, in its practical effects, it seems that Fundamentalist Christianity is little more than a viral marketing campaign for fire insurance – where eternity is everything and the temporal is an afterthought – in stark, ironic juxtaposition with the focus of the ministry and teaching of Jesus Christ.
This observation has been met with lots of denials from folks that their faith,
and their view of Christianity, is one of marketing fire insurance, and that such a categorization is unfair.
But they are also the same people who ask “What is the point of following Jesus if everybody were to be saved in the end?”
And that very question proves the lie of their denial of vocation – an insurance salesman/woman. The question, itself, becomes somewhat damning, because all of the insistence that theirs is not a theology of evacuation evaporates in the same facade as Queen Gertrude in Hamlet – the lady doth protest too much, methinks.
This is so incredibly sad, and when I hear it, it becomes no wonder to me why Christians are stereotyped as such an aloof, humorless lot.
We might protest that we’re not just insurance salesman (whether the pushy, street-corner variety, or the personal one-on-one type), but we don’t see any real benefit prior to our demise (or, at best, we pay it lip-service by trying to compare the length of time after death to the short span of life).
We might defensively proclaim that we do not hold a theology of evacuation, but we see no true and lasting point of what we do today, apart from that which secures our (or someone else’s) seat at the banquet tables after our earthly bodies become worm food.
And when we do this, we’ve completely missed the point. We do not need hell, we do not have the need for God to create people solely as “objects of wrath” for our benefit, we do not need natural or man-made disasters to prove the “wrath of God” to us.
As one of the PPP writers, Phil, noted to me:
I didn’t marry my wife out of fear of not marrying her. I married her because I couldn’t imagine my life without her, and because I was captivated by her.
And this should be our attitude towards Jesus, the bridegroom of the Church, to which we belong – Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Reformed, non-denominational and all flavors between – We should not choose Jesus out of fear of an eternity without Him. We should choose him because we cannot imagine our lives without Him, and because His presence captivates us.
Everything else should be icing on the cake – including eternity.
While I realize I may be late to the party, I tend to get lots of questions from friends and family when it comes to issues surrounding theology and/or Rob Bell. I was apparently in “wave two” of Amazon’s shipments of Bell’s newest book, Love Wins, so I just got my copy on Wednesday. Having now read it and processed it a bit, let’s answer the questions I suspect I’ll be asked, along with a review of the book.
Additionally, I’m simultaneously posting a separate article about the nature of hell and a number of different viewpoints on the subject (and why there might be room for doubt in the study of pareschatology – the study of what happens between death and the final state).
The Short Review
First off, there is nothing really “new” in this book that you won’t find in some form in the writings of other Christian authors, whether in the early Church fathers or in famous writers like C.S. Lewis, whose The Great Divorce and The Last Battle both communicate many of the themes mentioned in Love Wins. Additionally, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary (where Bell was trained), after reading the book, notes that Bell’s theology is still within the stream of Orthodox Christianity.
Let’s start with a quick Q&A style review (You can see a transcript of one interview here) for those of you that just want the answers to the most-often asked questions about this book:
Is Rob Bell a Universalist?
No. He has reiterated this in multiple interviews since the publication of the book. In Universalism, as in Determinism, there is no room for free will, and according to Bell, one of the primary characteristics of love is the freedom to choose apart from coercion. Thus, in Universalism, Love does not Win.
Does Rob Bell believe in Hell?
Yes. In the book, and in subsequent interviews, he makes it clear that he believes that Hell truly exists, both now on earth and in the future, past death. He states, “I believe in Hell now. I believe in Hell when you die. I believe God gives people the right to say “no”, to resist, to refuse, to reject, to cling to their sins, to cling to their version of their story. There’s a whole chapter in the book on Hell, and I think we should take Hell very seriously.”
Does Rob Bell believe that Hell will be empty?
No. While he does communicate the rationale for an empty Hell that Christian Universalists give, he does not assert it as certain truth, again stating that there are people who reject God and will be in Hell. Additionally, in his November 2010 sermon at Mars Hill Bible Church on Matthew 25 (the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids), he states that each of us will have an end date, past which we can no longer join the wedding party – and that we should be urgent in being prepared. His co-pastor, Shane Hipps, also confirms this Mars Hill Church teaching in his March 6 sermon, “When the Bowl Breaks”. (You can read the MHBC FAQ on Love Wins, as well, for more of the church’s view on its’ pastor’s new book.)
Why did Bell write this book?
Many people, as they come to learn about Christ and Christianity, have questions about the afterlife – often times conflicting questions. Bell believed that these folks were being mis-served by answers that treat these questions all under an umbrella of certainty (regarding eternal, conscious punishment, and the Gospel being functionally sold as fire insurance), where there have been a multiplicity of views throughout Christian history. Thus, ultimately, voices of certainty may have done more harm than good. This interview from MSNBC has a good response from Bell on this question, as well.
Then what is the hubub about?
Bell states (similarly to first century Rabbinic Judiasm) that the Kingdom of God/Heaven exists both here and now, and then later into eternity, when God renews the earth. Similarly, Hell exists both here and now on earth, and continues into eternity. In his view, there are a number of churches who treat the Gospel as a message of relocation. It is all about getting your ticket now to avoid hell after you die, at which point you will be whisked away to some other place called “Heaven”. Instead, he says that the Kingdom of God/Heaven has already come and that it has already begun to exist today and will continue on after we die. The Gospel is about how we treat people and live now, and we trust in God to take care of what happens when we die. Read more
So, with the recent furor over Love Wins, and with varying degrees of hand-wringing or gnashing of teeth over the certainty in hell’s manifestation, it probably makes some sense to outline what the Bible actually says about hell, some of the different views of hell, and why loosely holding your beliefs about pareschatology – the study of what happens between death and the final state of humanity – is probably the best course.
Hell in the Bible
First off, you won’t find any references to hell in the Old Testament. The only thing you will find referenced after death is Sheol, which is translated as “the grave”. All people die and go to Sheol, the righteous and unrighteous. Their bodies remain there, but they are still viewed as individual souls. In the Septuagint, this word is translated Hades – a word used a few times by Jesus – where Hades, in Hellenistic mythology was a state of limbo where all souls dwelt, awaiting the final judgment.
In the New Testament, Hades is mentioned five times – Matthew 16:18 (in this case referring to a literal place in Caesarea Philippi called the “Gates of Hades”), Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13; 20:14. This is also translated as “death”, “the grave”, and “the pit”.
In one case, 2 Peter 2:4, the word “hell” is translated from the word “Tartarus” – a place in Hellenistic mythology, recorded by Plato in 400BC, there the judged dead are imprisoned:
For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to Tartarus, putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment.
This reference comes from The Book of Enoch, an ancient Jewish mythological work also quoted by Jude, and (as noted by Peter) it was a place for imprisoning fallen angels, not human souls.
The third and final word translated “hell” in English versions of the Bible is Gehenna. This word comes from ge hinnom – The Valley of Hinnom. The Hinnom Valley lies alongside the Old City of Jerusalem, and by the first century AD was a city dump. Earlier, it had been the place of child sacrifice to the god Molech, and was thus considered cursed ground. In order to prevent the spread of disease and stench, along with reducing the volume of garbage, Gehenna was constantly kept burning, while dogs roamed around the edges, fighting over scraps of maggoty meat, their teeth gnashing at one another.
Jesus refers to Gehenna 11 times, and his brother James, once:
“But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of genenna.” (Matthew 5:22)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into genenna. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into genenna.” (Matthew 5:28-30)
“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in genenna.” (Matthew 10:28)
“And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of genenna.”(Matthew 18:9)
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of genenna as you are.” (Matthew 23:15)
“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to genenna?” (Matthew 23:33)
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into genenna, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into genenna. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into genenna, where “‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:22-28)
“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into genenna. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:4-7)
“The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by genenna.” (James 3:6)
These are all of the times “hell” is mentioned in the Bible.
So, since Sheol/Hades is “the grave” for all people, this is not what we would consider “hell” (as a place of punishment). Since Tartarus is only mentioned once and is clearly a reference to a mythological place for the imprisonment of angels (not men), it is also not what we would traditionally consider “hell”. Therefore, Gehenna is the word we would most associate with “hell”, as a place of punishment.
So, some observations
we can make about Gehenna from these passages:
- All of Jesus’ references to gehenna are made to religious people, and are made in reference to sinful behavior. None of them are spoken to unbelievers or in reference specifically about unbelievers – and for that matter, none are made in reference to one’s lack of belief or orthodoxy.
- All of the references to gehenna can be reasonably viewed as references to the literal location – a burning garbage dump, where bodies are filled with maggots (worms that, to the ancients, appeared to have come from nowhere and do not die – transforming, instead, into flies) are consumed in the flames.
- If we look specifically at the passage from Mark, which is the one most often quoted by those supporting a view of gehenna as a place of eternal, conscious punishment, Jesus refers to it as “where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” This is a direct quote from Isaiah 66, where the prophet describes the view of the fallen Assyrian army (in the Hinnom Valley) “And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind.” It is a view of dead bodies on a funeral pyre, full of maggots, being burned to ash.
A problem we’re faced with, in trying to create a systematic or logistical description of hell – gehenna – from these passages is that there is scant information contained therein as to how gehenna operates.
Now, one reasonable question we can ask is “what did the people associate with the word gehenna?” If Jesus’ audience considered gehenna to be a place for the eternal punishment of the souls of the wicked, we can reasonably assert that he never needed to explain what it was or how it worked. So what do we know about contemporary views of gehenna?
Gehenna does not show up in any of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Josephus, Philo, Apocrypha, or the Pseudepigrapha. The only ancient literature that gehenna shows up in as an eternal place of suffering are in the Rabbinic writings of the Mishna and the Talmud. But in these cases, gehenna is a place similar to Purgatory, where the souls of most sinners go to be purified for up to one year of suffering – with Sabbaths off. At the end of the time of purification/suffering, the souls of all but the most wicked enter the world to come, while the most wicked (a very small number) are then permanently destroyed (see Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin (7) Ch. 11 “Chelek”; and also here). So, the only context under which the people would have understood gehenna (depending on the accurate dating of the Talmud, which is believed to have been orally transmitted during the Babylonian captivity, hundreds of years BC, but was not written down until the third century AD, we can say that it was between 400 BC and 300 AD) is either as a temporal city dump OR as a form of Purgatory.
So – looking at the passages that simply refer to gehenna doesn’t give us a very clear or complete picture of hell. Where else might we look?
The Rich Man and Lazarus
In Luke 16, we read the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
So does this give us logistical or systematic information about hell?
- First off, this is a parable in a series of teachings that are also parables, so it is highly unlikely that Jesus is conveying a real story about real people, so we cannot definitively say that this is a story meant to convey literal truth.
- This story does reference some beliefs from pseudepigraphic books – The Book of Enoch and The Apocalypse of Zephaniah, along with the Rabbinic work, Genesis Rabbah. In these beliefs, Sheol/Hades has different places, separated by a chasm or a river, where the wicked dead and righteous dead are kept until a day of judgment. So, the question becomes – did Jesus consider these works authoritative, or was he using them as common Jewish mythologies his audience would have been familiar with?
- We know nothing about the rich man or Lazarus’ temporal life, in terms of their orthodox belief, just that the rich man was rich, and that Lazarus was poor and afflicted with sores. We do not know why the rich man was in Hades and Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham.
- Ultimately, this is a story of ethics, not one trying to teach about the cartography of hell. While we might make some guesses, we do not know if Jesus was teaching about a literal truth or a literary truth (a story familiar to his listeners).
Sheep and Goats
The next Scriptures often referenced in arguing for a conscious, eternal punishment view of hell comes from Matthew 25, in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats:
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
So let’s examine this passage:
- Once again, we’re dealing with parables, as opposed to literal description, so we cannot assume that this is a literal description of the Judgment. The purpose of this passage is not to describe the logistics of hell, but to make an ethical point.
- Even if it is a description of Judgment, the criteria for separating sheep from goats is the treatment of those in need – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned. What separates the sheep from the goats is their works for the poor, not their orthodoxy of belief. Arguing that this is a literal story, rather than a parable, opens an entire can of worms when trying to explain grace, faith, works, etc.
- “Eternal Punishment” – this could encompass annihilationism (being destroyed for eternity) as well as eternal, conscious punishment. Additionally, the Greek for this phrase (kolasin aionion) translates to “an age of pruning/correction”. This, too, could support annihilationism, and even the Rabbinic view of gehenna (similar to Purgatory), in addition to eternal, conscious punishment.
The Lake of Fire
One of the most vivid descriptions referenced in talking about hell is the Lake of Fire from Revelation. In Revelation 20, we read:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead,
great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
This passage has a lot of meaning that could be unpacked. Some of the high points, as they relate to our conversation on hell:
- This is from a genre of writing called “apocalyptic literature“, which is highly symbolic and sometimes hyperbolic. Arguing for symbols in Revelation to be literal is quite difficult, and often inappropriate (leading to all sorts of wild interpretations).
- Just from this passage, we have a number of problems of making the “lake of fire” literal. Not only are the wicked dead (whose names are not in the book of life) thrown into the lake of fire, but “death” and “Hades” are thrown into the lake of fire. So we have to argue that “death” and “Hades” are figurative, but the “lake of fire” they are thrown into is literal. Additionally, “death” and “Hades” are ended when their are thrown into the “lake of fire”. But to argue that the “lake of fire” is eternal, conscious punishment, we must argue that the wicked dead thrown into it are not ended. So, in essence, we must make a couple illogical steps to support a view of conscious, eternal punishment.
- The dead are judged “according to what they had done”, not according to their having the right orthodoxy. Aside from this, there is no indication of what determines whether or not one’s name is written in the book of life (be it literal or figurative).
- The lake of fire is referred to as “the second death”. This seems to argue more for annihilationism (or the Rabbinic view of gehenna) than for conscious, eternal punishment.
- This does indicate that there are those whose names are not found written in the book of life (be it literal or figurative), and that they are thrown into the lake of fire (be it literal or figurative). This would seem to be a good argument against pluralism or
What About Paul?
The Apostle Paul, the “Apostle to the Gentiles”, is silent on the issue of hell, and that his few references to the wicked in the world to come reference “destruction” or “death” rather than “punishment”. This would support an annihilationist view moreso than other views of hell. Additionally, one could argue, if hell was conscious, eternal punishment for all but cognizant, believing Christians, Paul would have spent much more time and space in urgently outlining it, explaining it and clarifying the right steps that have to be taken to make sure you avoid it. But that’s not the case.
What to Think
So what should we think? Probably one of the best articles I’ve read on this subject is by pastor Glen Elliott (written a two or three months before Love Wins became a subject of debate), who posits (like Bell) that we not hold to a pareschatological doctrine as a test of faith or fellowship. There is enough room for doubt as to the cartography and mechanism of hell, along with the criteria God uses for His righteous judgment, that we ought not demand a specific view from Christian believers, but that this should fall under the auspices of non-essentials.
From examining the Scriptures and the likely cultural understanding of their First Century audience, we can somewhat safely assert that multiple views are possible (with varying degrees of certainty): Annihilationism, eternal conscious punishment, and possibly the inclusion of a purgatory-like state from the Rabbinic view of gehenna.
Even so, pluralism or pure Universal Reconciliation (with the Rabbinic exception, noted above, which would allow for Revelation 20’s view of the book of life and the lake of fire – literal or figurative – to be true) are not supported in Scripture.
Regarding “who’s in and who’s out” – this is ultimately up to God, and we have no business judging whether or not someone who has died is in hell (be it Ghandi, Spurgeon, or Hitler). The Scriptural support for a strict exclusivist paradigm (where only a small
group of individuals who believe the “right” doctrine are “in” and all else are bound for hell) as the only viable model is quite thin. Most Christians actually hold to some degree of “exclusive inclusivism” – where they believe that there are people (children, the mentally disabled, those who have not had the chance to accept or reject the Gospel) whom Jesus will save in the afterlife who were not fully cognizant Christians in life, but that the criteria for this are up to God. They often point to Romans 1 for some evidence of this:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
As Bell notes in Love Wins, the teaching Jesus and his disciples passed on to us is about how we should live, love and believe today, and that we should trust Him to take care of tomorrow. How we live today determines how the Kingdom of God looks to others today – and thus it is urgent that we live righteous and upright lives, and that we make disciples of all nations. Not as a form of fire insurance, but as a form of worship of our Creator and for our own salvation, today. We trust God with our todays, and we can trust Him with our tomorrows, whether we are alive or dead.
Sounds like breakfast, no?
A new friend of mine from work, Len, connected with me in a rather roundabout way last week. As we are of like minds on both our faith
and our passion for the Hebrew roots of our faith, I am sure we will have many long discussions in the future.
Please check out his blog, Manna and Coffee. You can also read more of his vision and what got him started here.