The following is a critique of Bishop N.T. Wright’s interpretation of the significance of Gehenna. His views on it are quoted from his book: N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. HarperOne, 2008. p. 175-178.
The most common New Testament word sometimes translated as hell is Gehenna. Gehenna was a place, not just an idea: it was the rubbish heap outside the south-west corner of the old city of Jerusalem. There is to this day a valley at that point that bears the name of Ge Hinnom. When I was in Jerusalem a few years ago, I was taken to a classy restaurant on the western slope of this famous valley, and we witnessed a spectacular fireworks display, organized no doubt without deliberate irony, on the site to which Jesus was referring to when he spoke about the smoldering fires of Gehenna. But, as with his language about heaven, so with his talk of Gehenna: once Christian readers had been sufficiently distanced from the original meaning of the words, alternative images would come to mind, generated not by Jesus or the New Testament, but by the stock of images, some of theme extremely lurid, supplied by ancient and medieval folklore and imagination.
The point is that when Jesus was warning his hearers about Gehenna he was not, as a general rule, telling them that unless they repented in this life they would burn in the next one. As with God’s kingdom, so with its opposite: it is on earth that things matter, not somewhere else. His message to his contemporaries was stark, and (as we would say today) political. Unless they turned back from their hopeless and rebellious dreams of establishing God’s kingdom in their own terms, not least through armed revolt against Rome, then the Roman juggernaut would do what large, greedy and ruthless empires have always done to smaller countries (not least in the Middle East) whose resources they covet or whose strategic location they are anxious to guard. Rome would turn Jerusalem into a hideous, stinking extension of its own smoldering rubbish heap. When Jesus said “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish,” that is the primary meaning he had in mind.
This is merely Wright’s assertion. He does not demonstrate that the warnings about Gehenna that Jesus gave in Matthew 5:22 and 18:9 allude to the fate of Jews who perished in the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD.
whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of the fire of Gehenna.
This warning is part of the Sermon on the Mount, given to an audience consisting of his own chosen disciples, not the people of Jerusalem. Jesus also said:
And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the fire of Gehenna.
IMO, Wright’s claim that when Jesus referred to Gehenna he meant the destruction of the city by the Romans in 70 AD does not hold up under scrutiny. How could the Jews as a nation pluck out their eye? Who was their brother? These warnings Jesus gave about Gehenna would make little sense, unless they applied to individuals. And Jesus indicated he was not telling people how to save their lives, when he said, “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.” [Matthew 16:25]
It is therefore only by extension, and with difficulty, that we can extrapolate from the many gospel sayings which articulate this urgent, immediate warning to the deeper question of a warning about what may happen after death itself. The two parables which appear to address this question directly are, we should remember, parables, not actual descriptions of the afterlife. They use stock ancient Jewish imagery, such as “Abraham’s bosom,” not to teach about what happens after death but to insist on justice and mercy within the present life. This is not to say that Jesus would have dissented from their implied picture of post-mortem realities. It is, rather, to point out that to take the scene of Abraham, the Rich Man and Lazarus ‘literally’ is about as sensible as trying to find out the name of the Prodigal Son. Jesus simply didn’t say very much about the future life; he was, after all, primarily concerned to announce that God’s kingdom was coming “on earth as in heaven.” He gave (as we have seen) no fresh teaching on the question of the resurrection, apart from dark hints that it was going to happen, and happen soon, to one person ahead of everyone else; for the rest he was content to reinforce the normal Jewish picture. In the same way, he was not concerned to give any fresh instruction on post-mortem judgment, apart from the strange hints that it was going to be dramatically and horribly anticipated in one particular way, in space-time history, within a generation.
Wright applies the warnings of Jesus that refer to Gehenna to Jews of the first century, which is the typical preterist approach.
Preterists interpret the saying of Jesus, “This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled,” from a human point of view, one that discounts the living Jesus Christ. Jesus said,
Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.
Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.
Preterism assumes that Jesus excluded himself, but why would he do that? Jesus believed he would be raised up from the grave, to immortality, and to an even more real existence than he previously had. And his faith was realized. He was raised up, and so his generation still exists! It is a unique generation, that will not pass away.
Preterism was the preferred approach of rationalist German critics of the nineteenth century, who denied the resurrection of Jesus, or that Jesus had performed any miracle. Their interpretations were imported into mainstream Christian churches and denominations, preterism included.
The hope of the Christian is the resurrection, and the kind of life that Jesus obtained. The preterist assumption that Jesus’ generation passed away in the first century is essentially a form of unbelief.
We cannot therefore look to Jesus’s teaching for any fresh detail on whether there really are some who finally reject God and, as it were, have that rejection ratified. All the signs, of course, are that he went along with the normal first-century Jewish perception: there would indeed be such people, with the only surprise being the surprise experienced, by sheep and goats alike, at their fate and at the evidence on which it was based. And the early Christian writers go along with this. Hell, and final judgment, is not a major topic in the letters (though when it comes it is very important, as for instance in Romans 2:1-16); it is not mentioned at all in Acts; and the vivid pictures toward the end of the book of Revelation, while being extremely important, have always proved among the hardest parts of scripture to interpret with any certainty. All this should warn us against the cheerful double dogmatism that has bedeviled discussion of these topics–the dogmatism, that is, both of the person who knows exactly who is and who isn’t “going to hell” and of the universalist who is absolutely certain that there is no such place or that if there is it will, at the last, be empty.
That latter kind of universalism was the normal working assumption of many theologians and clergy in the liberal heyday of the 1960s and 1970s and has remained a fixed point, almost in some cases the fixed point, for many whose thinking was shaped in that period. I well remember, in one of my first tutorials at Oxford, being told by my tutor that he and many others believed that “though hell may exist, it will at the last be untenanted”–in other words, that hell would turn out to be purgatory after all, an unpleasant preparation for eventual bliss. The merest mention of final judgment has been squeezed out of Christian consciousness in several denominations, including my own, by the cavalier omission of verses from public biblical reading. Whenever you see, in an official lectionary, the command to omit two or three verses, you can normally be sure that they contain words of judgment. Unless, of course, they are about sex.
The notion that the sayings of Jesus about Gehenna were all fulfilled in the events of 70 AD naturally tends to support universalism, but such conclusions would be based upon flawed assumptions. Wright resisted a commitment to universalism, and offered instead a variety of scenarios, or options, which is hardly satisfactory, and such uncertainty cannot be called faith. I suggest, Wright has misinterpreted what Jesus said about Gehenna. In every case when Jesus made reference to Gehenna, he was clearly warning about the things that could keep people out of the kingdom of heaven.
What things were they? The Sermon on the Mount contains a list of promises to those who exhibit the characteristics of the saints; they are the poor in spirit, those that mourn, the meek, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. To them Jesus gave wonderful promises, and these represent his positive teachings about inheriting the kingdom; he also gave negative teachings, or warnings, to show us what to avoid, and Gehenna represents the fate of those who will not qualify to enter the kingdom.
The things that Jesus associated with being cast into Gehenna are: calling your brother a fool [Matthew 5:22]; not plucking out your right eye [Matthew 5:29; 18:9; Mark 9:47]; not cutting off your right hand [Matthew 5:30; Mark 9:43]; not cutting off your right foot [Mark 9:45]; fear of men [Matthew 10:28; Luke 12:5]; hypocrisy [Matthew 23:15, 33]. Here, the “eye” is not necessarily a literal eye, but stands for an attitude of mind, or spirit. Likewise the right hand represents deeds, and the foot represents our walk, or way of life.
Jesus taught in the parable of the talents, Matthew 25:14-30, that failing to be a “profitable servant” could disqualify one from entering God’s kingdom. The scripture itself is an example of the “talents” which are delivered to the saints; burying one’s talent in the ground might be compared with taking an unyielding, dogmatic, literal approach.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus showed that the following might also disqualify people from his kingdom: not giving meat to the hungry; not giving a drink to those who are thirsty; not clothing those who are naked; not visiting those in prison, or those who are sick.
None of the above seems to apply specifically to the Jews as a nation, in the first century, and none of those things can be said to have related to the events of 70 AD. Rather, the meaning of Gehenna is connected with being excluded from the heavenly Jerusalem, and the kingdom of God.
Copyright © 2011, 2014 by Douglas E. Cox
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