Thursday, March 24, 2011

Hell, Part 5

The large portion of the New Testament is comprised of letters by Paul. Paul never referred to Hell or Gehenna. To quote Matthew Ritchie, "This is a very curious thing. Paul, the man specifically commissioned to carry the gospel to the Gentiles, who is universally credited as the most important figure ever to interpret and expound on the gospel, never says a thing about Gehenna or Hades." In Acts 20:27, Paul is quoted as saying "I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God." He is referencing a scripture from Ezekiel (33:6-8): "If the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet...his blood I will require..." Paul claimed to have declared "the whole counsel of God" and understood his culpability if he failed to do so, yet we have no record that he ever spoke of Hell.

In fact, Paul said quite the opposite:

"But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15:20-22)

"This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. These things command and teach." (1 Timothy 4:9-11)

"For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all." (Romans 11:32)

"Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to faith and obedience— to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ!" (Romans 16:25-27)

Paul did speak of judgment, of course (for both the believer and the non-believer), but that can mean many things. Ancient people typically thought of mishaps--from droughts to plagues to invading armies to childlessness to an early death--as forms of divine judgment. Paul also clearly taught that each one of us will stand before God after we die and be judged, but that doesn't necessarily equate to eternal conscious torment. In a later post, I'll attempt to explain what I believe it will be.

The Book of Acts provides several excellent examples of the type of evangelistic message preached by the earliest Christians. We read of Peter preaching to a crowd of Jews at Pentecost (including those he says are responsible for crucifying Jesus); of Philip sharing the Good News with an Ethiopian official; of Paul speaking to pagan Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill; etc. Yet in all the preaching of the early Christians recorded in Acts, we do not see any mention of Hell. That seems like an incredible omission, if Hell were true.

The New Testament book which seems to contain the most graphic descriptions of Hell is Revelation, with its Lake of Fire. But the Book of Revelation is an Apocalyptic book. Apocalyptic writing was a genre of Jewish and early Christian writing which flourished from about 250 BC to 150 AD. Examples include portions of Daniel and Ezekiel as well as the aforementioned Book of Enoch. Many of the ancient Jewish pseudepigraphical works are Apocalyptic in nature. The word Apocalypse means "revealing." The idea behind an Apocalyptic document is that of using fantastic images imbued with symbolic meaning to describe earthy (often political) events. Apocalyptic writings tended to be filled with dreams and visions, angels and demons, monsters and great cosmic conflicts. Later works of allegory, such an Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress or C.S. Lewis's "The Great Divorce" work in a similar way. Perhaps a modern-day descendant of Apocalyptic literature is Science Fiction. Sci-Fi stories are often really commentaries about current issues here and now on earth. Gifted Sci-Fi authors will use compelling stories of strange worlds, aliens and space battles to get us to ponder issues much closer to home. Much of the Book of Revelation has to do with the persecution of Christians by Nero and the monumental events of 70 AD.

The only thing more foolish than reading an Apocalyptic book--such as Revelation--as a literal description of future events would be trying to then use that literal reading as a basis for doctrine.

In summary, the only way to derive the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment from the Bible is to ignore its glaring absence from most of the Old and New Testaments and instead to take a small number of references to Gehenna by Jesus out of their original context and link them to passages that deal in more general terms with warnings about judgment and punishment (which in many cases were understood to be temporal in nature, as in the case of 70 AD).

An ancient rabbi once compared the Halakah to "a mountain suspended by a hair." The Halakah was the entire massive corpus of Jewish oral & written law, including interpretation and commentary, which was built up over the course of centuries. As Jesus explained (and Hillel before Him), the entire Halakah was really as simple as "love God and love your neighbor." But tradition has turned it into "a mountain suspended by a hair." The same can be said for the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment. It is a mountain suspended by a hair. It is built on centuries of tradition, but the scriptural support for it is very thin.

Ancient Jews, by and large, did not believe in Eternal Conscious Torment. Early Christians, it appears, did not believe in Eternal Conscious Torment. As Christianity moved away from its Jewish roots in the first few centuries and became more Roman, it became mixed with Greco-Roman theological concepts. In its first 500 years, Christianity shifted from a Jewish base, to a Greek base, to a Roman/Latin base. Later Latin-speaking Church Fathers (such as Augustine in the 5th Century) had been pagan philosophers prior to becoming Christians. They lacked first-hand knowledge of Jewish theology, history, language and culture. Instead, they imported their own very non-Jewish theological and philosophical views into Christianity. That is how Eternal Conscious Torment became an entrenched Christian doctrine. At the 2nd Council of Constantinople in 553 AD--500 years after Jesus--the doctrine of Eternal Conscious Torment was made official church dogma.

To Part 6
To "The Hell Series" Table of Contents


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